Since graduating from college fifteen years ago, I have enjoyed unexpected success.
As a leader and fundraiser, my teams and I smashed through success rates in donor retention, total and annual revenue, and participation in giving.
We closed out capital campaigns and giving challenges. We increased one annual fund sustainably by more than 30 percent.
Personally, I’ve earned seven prestigious awards, served as a speaker at more than 30 conferences nation-wide, and published two books with a third on the way.
I served as a volunteer or board member in nearly a dozen different roles, launched two small businesses, was made an Executive Director before 35, and Vice President before 40.
I’m not bragging. In fact, I feel silly sharing that, but it matters because statistically, it should not have happened. In fact, the only reason that stuff matters is because it paints a picture of overcoming odds.
I was classified at-risk in middle school. My family fell below the poverty line. I faced several emotionally-debilitating challenges in my youth. I only went to college because I had a very persistent guidance counselor who steered me toward the Higher Education Opportunity Program. Once in, people went above and beyond to ensure I graduated.
I’ve seen the statistics play out. Many of my early peers are still stuck in poverty or grappling with addiction. Some have died or landed in jail. Education is certainly the great equalizer but what we do with that education matters. How we live out our leadership through our professional lives determines how far we can go.
The secret to success:
So how does one go from at-risk to successful professional? (Personally, I credit faith first and foremost, but what else?) There are a multitude of ingredients but the two most important words are this: humility and collaboration. I believe these two behaviors underline every win I ever experienced.
When we are born onto this earth we know nothing in terms of learned information – not a single word. This earth is a foreign place. I’ll never forget bumping into my brother-in-law Tim at the store. His infant son Gage sat in the car seat in the cart. The entire time Tim and I talked Gage stared intently at my lips. I could see his brain working as he watched us form words. He was learning language right before my very eyes.
Somewhere along the line, we risk devaluing the learning process. Every effort should begin as Gage did – watching, learning, assessing, absorbing. At the root of learning is humility. I know some things but not everything. From a place of humility, I open myself up to the information around me. I see and hear things differently. I value differing opinions. I am receptive to input which allows me to grow and expand my understanding. Just like Gage had to learn before he could speak, as professionals we must learn before we can act.
Collaboration – my second favorite word. Studies show that companies with diverse leadership teams and boards are more successful and experience higher revenues. Diversity of perspectives and skill sets leads to a more well-rounded operation. I can only accomplish so much on my own. As we draw others in, we expand our capability. We also bring new and important information to bear on the challenges we face. Other staff members, departments, community members, age groups, cultures – all of these can lead to better solutions than those created in a vacuum.
What it all means:
Fifteen years ago, I was an insecure, broken person with absolutely no thought about my future except that I liked to write. Today, my life has purpose, meaning, and impact. I am so grateful for the path laid out in front of me and those who led the way, and I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that leading from a place of humility and inviting other voices in to the process opens possibilities beyond our imagination. In fact, I dare say some of our world’s biggest challenges can be overcome using the formula of humility and collaboration.
In his text The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles, astronaut Ron Garan said, “A partner’s different perspective is valuable, but the very fact that it is different means that it will require work, humility, time, and resources to incorporate that perspective. At times, this will require checking one’s pride at the door.”
Collaboration and humility are hard work but when enacted, change lives and communities.
Some leaders just “get it.” Call it emotional intelligence. Call it an inner compass. Call it strategic vision, but whatever you call it, some have it and some don’t.
Leadership theory has evolved immensely throughout history. The “Great Man” theory said only a certain personality type could rise to power. The authoritarian leadership theory espoused power and control as secrets to success. Others argued a leader had to be in the right place at the right time (situation theory) or had to act a certain way (behavior theory). There was even an anti-leadership leadership theory that argued there is no consistent rule.
Today’s leadership theory recognizes those inconsistencies and presents a new vision. In many ways, it rolls all leadership theories into one.
Today’s leadership theory points to a process in which individuals identify and grow their God-given gifts and abilities into powerful strengths, then practice those strengths in dynamic environments where they can impact change and inspire others.
The beauty of today’s leadership theory resides in its unique complexity. There are no easy answers.
We know now that just because someone is born in the right place at the right time and has certain personality traits, it doesn’t guarantee greatness. Success is not inherent in power and control. Just look at the number of leaders with unbound power who fell from grace.
Today’s leadership theory is complicated because it calls on each individual to examine their life, to explore their gifts, to develop their talents, and to find their passion. Where one person finds greatness in books and shared knowledge, another may find it in business or art.
In fact, some may find it in the quiet, private places.
Consider the older gentleman I sat next to at church who delivered lunch throughout the week to home-bound seniors. He made them laugh and smile in an otherwise bleak day - then he shared his stories and attracted others to volunteer. He was the epitome of leadership.
This May, I will share "Two Simple Ways to Change Your Thinking and Reap the Rewards of Magnetic Leadership" with the Western New York Chapter of the American Business Women’s Association. We’ll explore some challenging questions that will push each participant to think about their unique leadership ability and begin to build on their strengths; but it will require a “letting go” of some traditional leadership myths.
Bill George, author of True North, said it well, “To become authentic leaders, we must discard the myth that leadership means having legions of supporters following our direction as we ascend to the pinnacles of power.”
No – leadership is about finding your inner truth. It’s about drawing others toward a shared vision with tangible impact. Leadership is rarely the same from one person to the next. Leadership is as unique as our fingerprint.
Some of the most successful people in history overcame epic failures. Oprah Winfrey experienced the kind of childhood trauma that crushes the human spirit. Albert Einstein was slow to speak fluently. Bill Gates’ early business idea crashed and burned. Stephen King’s first novel was rejected by dozens of publishing houses.
Yet, they persevered. No. They overcame and overcoming is like an evolution of the human spirit. It can and does lead to greatness.
One of my favorite books of all time is True North by Bill George, former CEO and Harvard business professor. George interviewed successful leaders in business and discovered a commonality. They all faced “crucibles” in their lives, but they overcame. They put their life story in context and moved forward.
That process of pausing, analyzing, learning, and evolving is the human version of the science lab.
Scientists rely heavily on failed experiments as a pathway to success. Before any great medical innovation or technological invention sweeps society, it likely crumbles on the lab floor over and over again. Through failure and the process of elimination, scientists and inventors discover greatness. They discover the needle in the haystack.
Humans are no different, only our lab is our life. If we quit early, we may never reinvent ourselves.
Psychology Today writer Ryan Holiday said, “To gain the benefits [of failure], we have to listen to it and recognize the problems it exposes.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is ourselves. Gaining the courage to stand up after a great big fall is never easy. Our failures are often followed by disappointment, anger, pain, and embarrassment. Yet, those things are temporary.
In a Forbes article, Scott Petinga says turning failure into success takes guts, resilience, initiative and tenacity – things we are all capable of if we choose to embrace them. I know. I have endured huge failures in my life, some of which are the basis of my novel Hope Rising. Nevertheless, I continue on, and that tenacity – as Holiday put it – has led me to some of the best moments in my life and in my profession.
So, what do you need to know?
Embrace your failures. Pick them apart. Look for the problems hiding within. Correct those faults and move forward. Be brave. Be relentless. Be bold. You can and will invent a life you can proud of.
Pamela Witter is a speaker, author, and professional fundraiser. She serves as VP for Development at Trocaire College and owns and operates a small business called Seed Planters. Visit her at www.BeASeedPlanter.com.
Petinga, S. (August 12, 2014) How to Embrace Failure in Order to Become Successful. Forbes.com (Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2014/08/12/how-to-embrace-failure-in-order-to-become-successful/)
Holiday, R. (March 12, 2014) Why You Should Embrace Failure. Psychology Today.com (retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-obstacle-is-the-way/201405/why-you-should-embrace-failure)
Pamela Witter is a published author, fundraiser, and life-long student of leadership. Browse Pam's blog entries for possible conference session or keynote topics. Pam customizes training opportunities for her clients.
Email me at BeASeedPlanter@outlook.com.