I got my first experiences as a leader early on – as the ring leader leading a small gang of troublemakers.
When I was only 4 months old, my brother-in-law was killed in an airplane crash. He was never found. After a few months of waiting and hoping that he would show up, my sister moved back in to live with me and our parents.
I was by far the youngest child in my family, this sister was 25 years older than me. And she brought home with her, her son, Jeff, who was already 8 months old. Soon after my sister moved back home, she realized that she was pregnant – this time with twin boys (who were named Paul and Darrel).
So by my first birthday, my house had four boys that were 1 year old or younger. My nephew Jeff was older than I was and he might have become the ring leader if not for the fact that he was physically smaller than I was and, after all, I was the uncle.
So I became the defacto leader of our little gang of troublemakers. Early on, I realized that I always had to make sure the twins were on my side – because they never would “split a vote.” So I remember any fractionalization in our group was always me and the twins against Jeff. But interestingly, it was always Jeff I felt most close to. But when I had to assert my authority, I always had physical size on my side – I would simply sit on my nephews until they agreed to my plan or we came up with some compromise.
We pretty much terrorized the neighborhood – climbing trees and pulling down apples, riding our tricycles too fast down the neighborhood streets, turning over tables and using the upturned table legs as microphones as we sang Beatle’s songs (our foursome already had a John and a Paul so we had half the Beatles’ names right there, we were a natural).
To this day, my sister is convinced that I put my nephews up to their biggest heist, but did not participate myself. I don’t remember leading that one, but I still get blamed. Jeff and the twins rode their tricycles to the local grocery store – about 5 blocks from home – walked in, took candy off the shelf, ran out and rode their tricycles as fast as they could to a nearby orchard – where they were found an hour later laying under the trees with stomach aches and empty candy wrappers all around them. (Given my love for candy, I can’t believe that I didn’t at least participate in the eating part even if I hadn’t planned the whole thing.)
When I was 5 years old, my sister remarried and moved away. It was a terribly sad time for me. I lost my gang. But those early experiences in leading a group set a pattern for life. It probably didn’t hurt that I have always looked older than my age too (when I was in junior high school everyone assumed I was in college).
So, it seems, whenever there was a class leader appointed during elementary school, I got the job. When I got into junior high school, a group of my teachers placed me on the ballot for Eighth Grade President. I protested because I knew that I was going to be on a family trip during the elections and wouldn’t even be in town. A group of my friends heard about my decision not to be on the ballot and came to me with a proposal that they would run my election for me while I was out of town. They made the posters, did the election speeches and, it was from a hotel room in Florida, that I heard from one of those friends that I’d been elected president.
Later, in high school, I was elected as Student Body President of my class, once more, while I was out of town during the election. (Maybe the moral of the story is never be around during an election – perhaps “absence makes the heart grow fonder” – or at least I couldn’t say anything stupid to make enemies!) I continued to be elected and appointed regularly to leadership positions throughout my life.
But there was one moment when I turned down an opportunity where I’ve always wondered what a “yes” in that instance might have meant. At the age of 30, I was sitting in a meeting of the most senior leaders of my firm. I was a very junior staff person attending a meeting to determine the future of the Asian operations of the company. In this meeting it was announced that the previous leader of Asia in the firm was being “redeployed” to some other post. It was clear that this was a demotion for him. This leader had been a very dear mentor so the politics of his reassignment made me very sad. But I still respected the other leaders in the room and I could actually understand their reasons for taking this action.
As they discussed the future leadership of Asia, it became clear that the top leaders of the company were all too busy to take over his responsibility. Every time a name was mentioned as a replacement, there was a very good reason why that person couldn’t take over. Finally, one person pointed at me and said, “Beck, why don’t you do it?” It was like a light bulb had gone on in the room. Everyone agreed at once: “You would be perfect.” I was 10 to 20 years younger than anyone else in the room. Logically (to me anyway), I made no sense as the new leader of a whole geography for the company. And I was afraid of offending my mentor, the previous leader of Asia, by becoming his replacement. So I said “no.” They pushed some more. I continued to insist that I was too inexperienced in the firm to do a good job. The CEO finally said to me: “These opportunities don’t come along often in one’s life. You’re passing up a very rare chance.” I quietly said “no” again and they started discussing some other names.
That is one of my biggest regrets of my professional life in retrospect. I’ve often wondered what path that might have set me on. I’ve been very lucky in my life, but that was one time when I rejected “luck” when it came my way and I wish I hadn’t.
Moral: Some of you naturally will appear like leaders to others around you. Take those opportunities when they come. Those of you who haven’t had “natural” leadership opportunities, make the opportunities to lead and learn those behaviors whenever you can. Don’t “sit on” your followers – there are better ways. And when people want to come to your support, accept their help. Good leaders know they can’t do everything by themselves – that is why they are “leaders!”