I have recently returned from Module 2 of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program. This module was hosted at the Clinton Presidential Center and featured speakers such as Amy Tu (International President for Tyson Foods), Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin (also former Congressman, former Lt Governor for Arkansas), Don Baer (former Chief Speech Writer and Special Advisor to President Clinton), Congressman French Hill, Secretary Rodney Slater (former Secretary of Transportation for the Clinton Administration), lectures by Dr. Michael Hemphill of the Clinton Foundation, and of course, President Bill Clinton himself.
At this writing, there are a number of themes circling my thoughts. Some of these thoughts linger from the first module while others are placed neatly on top of them like pieces of a 12 layer southern chocolate cake. One of the gifts of this program is thinking and thinking about thinking. Sounds ridiculous, I know.
However, in our action-oriented society, there is much emphasis on WHAT you are doing rather than WHY or HOW. This leads me to my first theme that remains from Module 1 like the morning dew on the lawn before it evaporates in the mid-day sun.
Start With Why
The concept of starting any project or conversation with the understanding of the purpose seems fundamental. Yet, ask yourself how many times you actually do that? Yeah, I’m a little bit surprised at my answer to that question, too.
Simon Sinek has a best-selling book entitled Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. One poignant quote in the book gets to the heart of this idea splendidly:
Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief - WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?
As a leader, we were challenged to name our why. And I am talking more than a philosophical hodge podge of words. We were told to actually produce a picture of our why—to actually embody it in the likeness of a person (or persons). Then, we were encouraged to put a copy of the photo in the front of our program journal where we would see it every time we opened it up or it would fall out, which immediately brought us back to the answer of the question WHY? And more importantly, WHO.
You can see my WHY below. Why have I been a part of a nonprofit organization for nearly two decades and serving as its leader for fifteen of those years? Again, getting past the noise and niceties right down to intrinsic motivation and where the rubber meets the road. This is my why.
The photo itself is not remarkable. A dozen or so middle school students posing for a group photo during their summer camp at Rock Eagle 4-H Center. In their eyes are the hopes, dreams, and aspirations ahead of them. Absent from their eyes are the worries of inadequacy, fears of the unknown, dread about failure. Take a moment to soak that in.
Can you imagine yourself in that picture? I can both figuratively and literally. I’m the little dude in the bottom right hand of the photo sporting my “Popeye the Sailor Man” shirt.
I would like to introduce you to the Sixth Grade Randell—back before aviator glasses were cool. He and all of those students (and the hundreds of thousands of others they represent are my why).
Behind the awkward smile of 6th grade Randell, there is a story: a young man from rural northwest Georgia along the southernmost foothills of Appalachia being raised by his grandmother. His southern drawl is second only to his southern charm. He is a young man full of promise, but also lives with the reality that (unbeknownst to him), statistically speaking, he could be near the peak of his potential because of his life’s circumstances over which he had no control. To that point in his life, none of his family had attended college. His grandparents didn’t even graduate high school. In fact, his paternal grandfather only completed the 6th grade—the very age that Randell is in the photo.
What was the difference maker?, you ask. A youth development program that provide opportunities for Randell to get outside of his local environment, one that allowed him to experience life and learn outside of his hometown. A program that allowed him to go to the state capitol as a young person as a Representative and sit in the Georgia House of Representatives.
I’ll never forget walking into the House Chamber that first day with its grandeur—it literally took my breath away.
And today, while I’ve been through those same doors perhaps a hundred times, my breath is still taken away because of that memory and the opportunity that it represented for the 6th grade Randell. As a side note, that youth development program is the very one for which I have worked for the past two decades.
My why? It is simple—if I can provide opportunities for little Randell, little Sarah, young Joaquim and Marquita, and others to get the taste of what can be, I can awaken their thirst for the possibilities and equip them to chase them with reckless abandon. I often say if students “can see it, they can be it.” And that’s exactly what young Randell saw: he saw himself as a person with intrinsic value and even if for a few days, he was Representative Randell Trammell. And that was just the beginning…
To quote President Bill Clinton, “you have to start with the end in mind.” The end that we start each day with is giving the students the keys to opportunity and the understanding and tools of democracy so they can build their own American dream.
Who is on your board?
Another lingering topic that seems to be an undercurrent between the two modules thus far is the question “who is on your board?” In a gathering of nonprofit executives or even C-Suite business leaders in corporate America, most often the question arises as to “who is on your board?” The question speaks to legitimacy, influence, strategy, power. For some, it’s a point of great pride. For others, it can be a point of contention.
I’ve been fortunate to belong to and work for many great boards alongside hundreds of remarkable (and a few less than remarkable) board members. But I’m not talking about the nonprofit I run or what is defined in the organizational by-laws. I’m talking about what has been referred to as the “kitchen cabinet”—those, who at the end of the day, are vested in and want me to succeed.
A quick Google search for the term “personal board of directors” will yield about 903,000,000 results in less than a second (0.50 seconds to be exact) . So this is a thing. But what is it?
Marie Eisler suggests that:
a personal board of directors is a group of between five and 10 individuals that can help you make sound decisions, give you advice and feedback, challenge your assumptions, broaden your professional network, brainstorm and gut check ideas, and generally expand your perspective and thinking.
Just like in the case of an actual organizational board of directors, you want broad input from many perspectives. You want to avoid group-think by folks who are cheerleaders only or think exactly like you. And this is not necessarily a group of business leaders clad in coats and ties and pantsuits gathering to dissect your life—though, I suppose you could bring them all together. Another way to think about this is major-mentorship. Rather than having one mentor/mentee relationship, you allow multiple individuals to play to play that role for you and greatly expand the benefits.
So now the design and function are defined for you, the reader, how do I grapple with this concept personally—as the writer? Candidly, I’m still wrestling with it. I know it is vitally important. I have on more than one occasion started a list of folks and then wadded it up and played basketball with it…and much to my own disappointment. I mean, I can build (and have built) a strong board for our organization, but it’s different when I am thinking about who I want to trust with that power of influence in my own life. That also requires vulnerability—sharing with them that I don’t always feel confident or know exactly what to do. The truth is they know and understand that neither I nor do they possess some mystical superpower that allows us to transcend our humanity.
So my to-do list on this theme is this: make a list of five to 10 folks and ask them individually to coffee.
I’ll keep you posted on how this works. It may be the worst idea I’ve ever had—and if it is, I’ll let you know. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be a very rewarding exercise in my own humanity and will allow me to be stretched and grow to new heights.
The Man in the Arena
The last resounding major theme for me from this module is The Man in the Arena. Of course, this is a portion of a speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt delivered the speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910. According to The Roosevelt Center, the speech is popularly known as “The Man in the Arena.” His statements at the Sorbonne were part of a larger trip to Europe that also included visits to Vienna, Budapest, and Oslo. On May 5, 1910, he gave his Nobel Prize speech. This trip came in the midst of Roosevelt's frustration with the Taft administration and followed his African safari with Kermit. After completing his tour of Europe, Roosevelt would make a triumphant return to the U.S.
Roosevelt was a soldier, a hunter, a boxer, a man’s man, if you will. The metaphors of dust, sweat, and blood were not just descriptive words, but words that no doubt evoked the taste and stings of memories. It wasn’t idle talk, but words from experience.
There were conversations that occurred during this past module that in my sense of order belong tagged under this theme. As Dr. Hemphill has suggested on a few occasions, these are not many mini-episodic conversations, but one continuous conversation. He often shares the story of Neil Young being heckled yelled on 1996’s Year of The Horse, saying, “they all sound the same!” Neil’s response, just before they rip into “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” says volumes about his conception of his music: “It’s all one song!”
So in the thread of it all being one song,
Verse 1-Conversation with President Clinton
With my job, I’m often around the political players (Governors, Congressmen, Senators, etc.). I don’t want to sound like a schmuck and say they don’t impress me, but I have grown to realize that they are human just like me and you. With that said, however, when you are sitting face to face with a U.S. President (current or former), there’s a little bit of wow factor. So here I find myself sitting in a room with my PLS colleagues (59 others) and President Clinton-Certainly less than 80 folks in the room including his Secret Service detail. My thought was, “wow! This is a gift!”
The conversation was guided first by Stephanie Streett, who works for The Clinton Foundation, but eventually opened up to Q&A from the Scholars. One of the questions dealt with homelessness. President Clinton’s answer indicated they had not completely solved the problem saying, “we are struggling with homelessness (in New York City), but we are struggling in the right direction.”
That thought was both beautiful and profound to me. We know we don’t have all of the answers and we may not be doing everything right, but we are not going to sit back and study it, we are doing to do something, we are going to lean into the struggle.
Of course, whether you choose action or inaction, there will be criticism. You did the wrong thing. You didn’t do enough. Why didn’t you do xyz? To that, I offer Roosevelt’s comment in rebuff: “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”
However, President Clinton was very quick to point out that we should not immediately dismiss the critics quoting Ben Franklin who said, “Our critics are our friends for they show us our faults.” Expanding on that thought, the Former President said, “take criticism seriously so you don’t have to take it personally.”
The President certainly had his fair share of criticism. Some of it he brought on himself and others as the result of a divided congress and the Republican Revolution. I found his advice to take an introspective look at criticism to weigh its value as a good one—and not often easy.
Verse 2 A Conversation with Secretary Rodney Slater
Secretary Slater is an insightful man who is plain spoken—yet waxes eloquent with deep meaning. He shared personal stories that revealed his humanity and compassion—and true leadership qualities.
He actually invoked the use of the “Man in the Arena” imagery a time or two in his discussion with us. One comment he made was:
“You are seldom invited to enter the arena, you just enter.”
I wrote that line down. It resonated within me, but I needed to let it percolate for a while in order to figure out what meaning it had for me. It eventually landed in the same box with comments from a previous speaker from Module 1 of “whose permission are you waiting on to do _____?” People who start movements, who change their community, or change the world are rarely summoned and even more rarely invited. They see a need long before it is recognized and begin working on a response—an answer or an action plan to address it. Then, they muster the courage to enter the arena to do their thing.
Another quote Secretary Slater said,
“Every generation has the responsibility to enter the arena.”
Of course, this statement echoed throughout my soul as I have made it my life’s work (or at least two decades of it) to prepare the next generation of students to be educated and equipped to become informed and active citizens. In my work, I am trying to help students prepare for the arena—and show them the way to their own arena. To be clear, we are not trying to create a new political class or more politicians. We are helping reinforce and reinvigorate the fabric of community with those who care and are aware of both their rights and responsibilities to themselves and to the beloved community. My job is to help pave the way and show the way, so they can grow the way and go the way.
I wish there was a nice bow that I could place on top of these words that would help situate them into practical reality for me. There simply isn’t right now. Rather than placing them tidily on the shelf for (hopeful) future use, they must remain on the desk in the open while I marinate and ruminate on the words, the ideas, the hope, the opportunity, the responsibility contained therein. The thoughts are messy and can’t be contained just yet. Perhaps that is metaphor for our leadership journey. Or perhaps these thoughts are not meant to be tamed and contained, but rather to run free and ignite wildfires within the hearts, minds, and imagination of all who encounter them. The jury is still out.
Until the jury returns, however, I will keep thinking, keep doing, keep showing up, and leaning into this wonderful experience of developing myself, and developing incredible friendships.