Taking the Initiative

The following is excerpted from a speech given at the fall inductions of McCallie's senior leadership organization, Keo-Kio.

By John Lambert

I’m a sucker for a good commercial. I’ll pause when they come on TV, will watch them on YouTube, send links to my friends. One of my favorites right now is The Most Interesting Man in the World. In that campaign, a dapper looking older gentleman sits with a bevy of lovely women while a narrator describes some of his characteristics, among them:

  • "If he were to punch you in the face you would have to fight off the strong desire to thank him"
  • "His blood smells like cologne."
  • "He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels."
  • "His business card simply says 'I'll call you.'"
  • "Sharks have a week dedicated to him."

But there’s another one, not at all funny, certainly more idealistic, that I can’t help but watch when it interrupts the nightly news or some pro football game. You’ve probably seen the commercial. Dozens, maybe hundreds of times. It’s an extended narrative with about ten quick scenes.

A business woman keeps a pizza delivery guy, his iPod making him oblivious, from walking into an oncoming bus. She’s seen by a guy in a deli having coffee who, when boarding a bus, helps a new mother with a cumbersome baby stroller. That guy is, in turn, seen by a man sitting on a park bench who, in the next scene helps a short cook ... well, you get the message. (See full commercial at right.) The insurance company’s tagline is: “When it's people who do the right thing, they call it being responsible. When it’s an insurance company, they call it Liberty Mutual.”

Now I’m realistic enough, maybe even cynical enough, to know that Liberty Mutual’s (not to pick on them, but they brought it on with their ad campaign) and every other Insurance company’s goal is to make money. But I’m also a sucker for a good storyline, and that one always gets me to watch. It also illustrates something I’ve come to believe about leadership and its connection to friendship. It’s that angle I’d like to explore today.

Many years ago I was an advisor to this group, and days like these—induction days—I always found to be really stressful. There are so many factors of which advisors to any student group are not in control. Any coach of a sport, debate, or forensics team, feels that anxious anticipation when his students step on to the field of competition.

What if leadership isn’t simply a matter of being at the top, or at being the best or even of getting people to do what you want them to do?

When I advised Keo-Kio—and notice that I don’t say “was in control of” because of course control is illusory when you’re talking about adolescents—often our main worry was how long the members were going to take—indeed, what route they were going to take, to tap the new inductees. Too often, despite our admonishments, the tapping became about the current members and not about the newly inducted. I remember several seniors who spent upwards of 90 seconds—a lifetime, really, when the fate of the day's class schedule staying on time is at stake—walking up and down the sides, up into the balcony, out the back doors, back in to the Chapel, only to deliver a bone crunching slap, full force, to some hopeful classmate, in the fourth row, center aisle.

Not only that, but I remember how uncomfortable I was with the knowledge that some of my favorite students were not going to be inducted. Let me be clear. Keo-Kio has a really thoughtful process for selecting its members. More than any student group I’m aware of, the students are in charge of deciding its membership, but it’s hardly capricious. There’s a carefully-deliberated system that takes into account leadership in student activities — a process that tries to objectively reward concrete involvement in areas of clubs, academics, athletics, performing arts, publications, and community service. I’m aware that sometimes the hidden-ness of this process can lead to accusations that Keo-Kio too closely resembles a fraternity, but overall I think that they do acknowledge many students who lead our community.

At the same time, we realized that despite our best efforts to publicly acknowledge the accomplishments of our student leaders, we sometimes got it wrong. Or rather, we failed to have a tent big enough to encompass the many different kinds of leadership made manifest in our community. So today, as we honor a group of deserving young men who will receive recognition as members of our community who enliven, take initiative, get involved and make things happen, I’d like to honor a more common and perhaps less-recognized manifestation of leadership.

We typically think of leaders as the people who have the highest title in a group—the headmaster, the team captain, the valedictorian, the club president. But the simple fact of the numbers means that by that equation there will be very few leaders at all. After all, there are only so many schools, so many teams, so many graduating classes, so many clubs. If leadership is reduced to the person at the top of the food chain, then the game is rigged. But what if leadership isn’t simply a matter of being at the top, or at being the best or even of getting people to do what you want them to do? It can certainly be those things. But leadership is also about taking the lead, taking the initiative, listening to that still, small voice inside you that follows your best instincts. In that sense, leadership has a more universal quality.

Above the desk in my office is a photograph of the American artist, Georgia O’Keefe, along with one of her flower paintings and this quotation: “Nobody sees a flower really—it is so small—we haven’t time, and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

To have a friend takes time. And not only time, but commitment, initiative, sacrifice, as well. One could also say that having a friend means taking the lead, means leadership in the most generous sense of the word—not leadership as directing and forcing, but leadership as reaching out, being the first to initiate, invite, inquire. It’s the antithesis of passivity, an active seeking out ways of connecting with another human being.

This sort of leadership—the leadership of friendship—is harder to quantify than the leadership of titles. In that insurance ad I mentioned it was only the one person who benefited from the initiative of the other person who even knew about the generous act. Nobody was around to congratulate the construction worker, the prep cook, to say to them, “Hey, nice job saving that pizza delivery guy’s life. Here’s a key to the city!”

In fact most of what we do, day in and day out, in the lives of our friends, in the life of our community, doesn’t receive recognition. And in most situations, it would be absurd if it did. How awkward and uncomfortable it would be to hear a ninth grader tell his RA, “Hey, nice job taking me to Sonic!” Or to say to your friend, “Very impressive job asking me to your house for dinner—well played, sir!” Even so, those everyday moments in which we reach out to people, take the initiative, take the lead, are never a given, nor should we treat them as such.

Henry David Thoreau once observed, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” One way to avoid such a life is to be proactive in your relationships—with friends and strangers alike. When we live that way, accolades coming or not, we manifest what is best in us, our ability to connect, to take the lead.

John Lambert is English department chairman and has taught at McCallie School since 1986. He received the 2010 Keo-Kio Distinguished Teacher Award.

Tags: First Person friendship leadership organizations Posts from the Ridge students O Captain! My Captain!

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