Your Leadership Origin Story

comic-superhero-standing-silhouette_23-2147501843I love superheroes. Because, face it, they can do super-human things like leap tall buildings with a single bound, run faster than a speeding bullet, bend metal, sense danger from miles away, shoot laser beams from their eyes, fly, and the list goes on.

That’s just awesome!

But sometimes what’s even cooler than their superhuman skills is how they became superheroes in the first place.

My favorite part of the superhero story is the origin because it tells us who the hero was before he or she was super. It explains what inspired an ordinary person to become something extra-ordinary.

The superhero origin story makes me think about the real-life leaders and heroes who surround and inspire us to do extra-ordinary things every single day. These are our parents, teachers, coaches, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, pastors, athletes, government leaders, civil rights activists, and many others.

Ever wonder what first inspired them to step up and say “follow me?” If we did, imagine what we could learn from their origin stories.

And what about your own story? Have you ever thought back on that first time when you chose to lead? Why you did it? What inspired you? We all have a story. What’s yours?

For me, my story is pretty simple. But it reminds me of the basic lessons of leadership that I was taught at a young age. Also, it makes me smile because the first time I stepped up to lead was simply motivated by my selfish desire to have a little fun. And, boy, did I.

It was the sixth grade and I was taking a class on Texas History. My teacher assigned us a project to tell a story about the Battle of the Alamo. She said “be creative.” That was it. Those two words made up her singular instructions.

At that point in my childhood I had already decided I would be a movie director when I grew up. So, my teacher had just handed me a reason to make my very first movie. I was inspired.

The Alamo
Battle of the Alamo

First thing I did was hire my dad and his video camera for the weekend. Second, I scouted locations all around the neighborhood that I thought could authentically pass for “1836 Texas.” Then, with camera crew and locations at the ready, I cast my closest friends and together we scraped up every costume and prop we could find in our parents’ closets. Turns out I owned a coonskin cap, so it was decided I would play the part of Davy Crockett.

We spent the next weekend reenacting the famous Battle of the Alamo with the camera always rolling. We improvised the script as we went along, made the sounds of gunfire and cannons with our mouths, edited in the camera with the rewind and fast-forward buttons, and had an all around blast. When it was over we gathered on the carpet around my living room television set and watched our masterpiece unfold as we ate pizza and rolled on the floor laughing.

I look back on that experience fondly. Now, peering through adult eyes I can admit the final product was just terrible. But at the time we thought it was amazing. We were proud of what we created and the teacher appreciated it enough that I actually got an “A.”

A few months later we even did a follow-up film on the Texas Rangers with a cast double the size and a final product that was even worse than the first. Like a proper sequel, it was bigger and badder. But again, we loved it. We rallied around a common purpose and felt a passion for the work.

I never became a movie director, but that’s okay. My path took me in a different direction, but what I learned from that first leadership experience was how to set a vision, get others excited to join my project, and execute on an idea. It shaped me into the person that would continue to seek opportunities to lead and learn throughout the rest of my school years and now my career.

That’s my origin story. What’s yours?


Shh. I’m Leading.

MLKWhen we conjure up mental images of leaders we often think of those who are in front of a crowd. Demanding to be heard. Like Martin Luther King, Jr and his inspirational I have a Dream speech. Or Steve Jobs and his iconic Apple Inc. product launches.

But what about the quiet leader? Is that an oxymoron, or can the words quiet and leader, in fact, occupy the same space? I think they can. But, what does it mean to be a leader who is quiet? And what’s to gain?

This is a question I pondered recently when I found myself defining leadership using the word quiet. My friends at the e.MILE People Development Magazine have an ongoing collaboration called The ABC of Leadership, where contributors are asked to describe leadership using all twenty-six letters in the alphabet. [You can find it here.] I used the letter Q and offered this:

Quiet: An effective leader removes all distractions, both physical and emotional, in order to listen to others and themself. Doing so enables clarity, inspiration, and motivation.

I think I had quiet on the mind because at the time I was wanting space, some room to think and ponder. To plan. To create. My leadership job was hectic, full of people needing things around every physical and virtual corner. It was, in a word, loud. I wanted nothing more than to shout “shh, I’m trying to lead.”

Of course, I didn’t. Because that would have been rude and maybe a little confusing…

Shhh-Chalkboard-Logo-1024x819But, why was my desire for solitude so strong? Before you answer that and box me into a corner, let me explain that I don’t fancy myself an introvert. But, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that because I know that many of us associate introversion with the desire for quiet time. And rightfully so. It is generally accepted that introverts seek out and greatly value their quiet time. (I know because I asked a few). But, why?

Well, in my experience, your classic introvert has a very rich internal life, one they happily lean into when things are quiet. They take super advantage of that time to think, create, strategize, dream.

I call this super secret skill “shh time”, though it isn’t such a secret to our introverted friends. They know all about it. They get it.

In my opinion, the best leaders take advantage of “shh time” regardless of their intra-or extro-verted preferences. Let’s face it, leaders can’t be out in front one hundred percent of the time. Those who are may not be the most effective at leading. And, also, they may be a little exhausted.

What do leaders get from a little “shh time”?  When we can eliminate the physical and emotional distractions it allows us to do two things:

1. Tune In to Ourselves

How? Make purposeful time in your day for inward reflection. Close your door. Block your calendar. Walk your dog. Take a long drive in your car. Whatever works for you, just shut things off and out and see what happens. You may achieve a little self-awareness and understanding and discover some previously undiscovered insights. Most of all, you may experience that unfamiliar, yet oh so sweet, feeling of calm.

Keep quiet and people will think you a philosopher.

~ Latin Proverb

In quiet places, reason abounds.

~ Adlai Stevenson

2. Tune In to Others

listen1How? When having conversations with others, put down or silence your phone, turn off your computer, make eye contact. Really stop. Really look. And really listen.

Of course, that part isn’t always easy. Trust me, I know. The hard part is fending off that pesky thought-bubble that is quickly filling with questions and comments that must be shared at all costs! You can’t stop the bubble from forming; that’s involuntary. But you can pop it. That’s an active choice. So, pop that bubble and give others your heart and your undivided attention.

I’m exhausted from not talking.

– Sam Goldwyn

Being quiet with others can also be about absence. Meaning, by being silent it allows others the opportunity to explore and accelerate their own talents. Maybe they will trust their instincts and solve a problem or two all on their own.

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.

~Andrew Carnegie

mlk-in-birmingham-jailEven though we tend to remember great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Jobs in times when they were out in front, we should try to picture them when they were behind the scenes being very very quiet. I’m just sure it was in those “shh times” when the true magic of their leadership happened.

When was the last time you led quietly? Try it. See what happens.

When Working Together Works

fortunecookieToday’s post is brought to you by a fortune cookie. No joke. Just recently, I visited a new Asian-themed restaurant in town, and as you might expect, I had my fortune told to me by a cookie.

My fortune?

Working Together Works

Okay, sure. I guess. Not really a fortune, per se, but certainly a nice idea. Yet, as I drove home from dinner, my “fortune” safely tucked away in my pocket, I pondered this bit of fortune-cookie-wisdom and found myself actually disagreeing, thinking of all the reasons why working together does not, in fact, work.

Not sure why my dial was turned to negative thoughts this particular evening. Maybe I was annoyed at being gypped out of an actual fortune by my cookie. Or, more likely, perhaps it was because I’d recently encountered a number of team situations that simply did not work.

What happened?

When Working Together Does Not Work

There are many barriers to teams working effectively, but one particular idea comes to mind: Working together does not work when everyone agrees.

I’ll admit, this seems counter-intuitive. I mean, don’t we want people to agree? Is agreement not important for moving a project forward? Sure, except when that agreement results in a less-than-great decision.

We’ve all seen it. The first idea thrown out by the most vocal, assertive, and confident team member is selected. Either because the other team members are still chewing on their own ideas and not ready to throw them into the mix, or because they are afraid of creating conflict by lobbing a second or third idea, implying the first one was not good.

Of course, by agreeing too quickly we run the risk of leaving new, innovative and possibly better ideas uncovered and unexplored.

So, how can we avoid agreement? Simple.

When Working Together Works


Some call it a “Devil’s Advocate.” Others, a “Dedicated Dissenter”, or “Challenger.” Whatever you call it, the idea is to publicly assign someone the job of disagreeing.

Their role is to, no matter what, disallow any kind of agreement. Only for a reasonable period of time, of course. They can’t go on disagreeing forever; nothing would ever get done.

By assigning this role you free everyone up from hard feelings.This certainly requires that everyone knows about it; no secrets here. Because when the challenger gets going everyone will think, “Okay, she’s just doing her job. Cool.”

The benefit of this dedicated dissenter is it forces the team members to think of more ideas and it invites multiple perspectives. Encouraging disagreement inspires critical thinkingFurther, it forces individuals to put forth and fight for their own ideas, yet also consider them from all angles.

By the time this period of “invited disagreement” ends (let’s say 20 minutes, for example), you should expect to find multiple thoughtful ideas on the table. And you can feel confident that a great idea is ripe for the picking.

Give it a try. Or don’t, if you don’t agree.

Okay fortune cookie, you win. I agree, after all. Working together does work, as long as we first agree to disagree.


Leadership is About Motion and Emotion

Leadership is About Motion

streets in motionFundamental to leadership is this idea that you need to know where you’re going.  Where are you leading?  What is your destination? Where will you and your organization stand tomorrow where you aren’t standing today?  How will your future state be different than the current one?

Pick a destination, make a plan to get there, and put that plan in motion.  Because if you aren’t traveling in a direction that people can follow, you simply aren’t leading.  You’re standing still.

If you don’t know where you’re leading, people can’t follow.

Leadership is About Emotion

happy faceLeading people requires tapping into your emotions and the emotions of others.  A.k.a. the human side of things.  Yeah, emotions can be messy and hard to navigate, but if you don’t at least try, people will eventually leave you.  Consider questions like these:

Do the people you lead take joy in coming to work?  Are they proud of their accomplishments?  Do they have disdain for their coworkers?  Are they outraged at recent organization changes and are they anxious about their employment?  Do they respect and trust their leadership and are they devoted to you and the company?

Asking these questions, and many more, can help you enter a nice mutual space with your people.  The discussions that follow can help form bonds and create relationships that allow you to be a successful leader and your people to be even more successful humans.

If you can’t lead like a human, humans won’t follow.