Leaders are those folks that are at the front of the group, choosing the best path, looking at the ultimate goal. Leaders are the ones that have the experience and the character that allows the group to succeed in its mission. What is interesting about leaders is that they don’t all start from the same place. Some leaders begin in Kindergarten, determining who’s “it”, who gets to be chosen for the team, who twirls the rope and who jumps. Some leaders don’t start leading until they are senior citizens like Colonel Sanders. Some lead athletic teams, some lead school systems, some lead countries, but all these leaders don’t start from the same place.
One of my friends told her story last night. It broke my heart. She grew up in an abusive household, and said she was being trained to be a prostitute. That shocked me! She was being groomed from age 7! I wanted to cry. One of the things she said is that you don’t let your history define you. You don’t let your circumstances define how you live your life and see yourself. Don’t become your own enemy. The more I thought about this, the deeper it got. Your history will have a profound effect on how you regard your place in it. Are you relegated to the position you are now in, or can you change? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t be writing in this vein if I didn’t believe you could choose your direction, and she definitely changed hers. As a result of her upbringing, she raised her children to respect themselves and to not fall into the trap of thinking like a victim. She didn’t let her history Define her, she let it Refine her.
What does that mean? She had a mindset that told her she was worth something, she had a purpose in life, and that she knew she was not fated to live her life as determined by someone else. Statistics show that abusers marry abusers or become abusers. She chose not to become a statistic. People who have been repeatedly assaulted become professional victims. She didn’t. People who have succumbed to the mental diatribes of those who would judge them are negative and cynical about the human condition. You have never met a more positive person than my friend. The thing is, most people would not even think of her as leader material. Who would follow a victim of mental and physical abuse, someone that had been trained to be a prostitute: someone who had her history? Yet, she has become a leader in Toastmasters. She has been a club officer, an area director, and a conference chair, and soon, she will attain the Distinguished Toastmaster designation. She’s a leader in her community and her church.
What makes this remarkable is that she knew from age 7 (!) that the events in her life were not how other children were raised. She knew that though this abuse seemed interminable, it would not and should not continue for the rest of her life. She learned that she did not invite or deserve this type of treatment and she laid the blame squarely on the abuser. This is rarely the case with those trapped in this horrific situation. They are made to think that they would not be abused if they didn’t deserve it, and after a while, they believe it. She didn’t let her history define her, she had it refine her.
I have another friend whose parents were in the ministry. His dad was a preacher and as we know, preachers move around a bit! He has always been brilliant, but he was socially awkward–a bit of a geek. He was popular with the math community as long as he wasn’t in one of their classes. (He tended to skew the grading curve and everyone had to work harder to get a good grade.) He played on the college intramural football and softball teams, but he was just a player, not a leader. Then he got chosen to be the dormitory social director. He had to organize events and get people to attend. He didn’t have a committee so he didn’t delegate and he didn’t lead people, he pushed people. Usually the leader says, “Hey everyone! Let’s go do…” and everyone goes. What he did was to influence the leaders in the dorms to come to his events, and those leaders brought their followers. You are familiar with the old joke: What’s the difference between an introverted mathematician and an extroverted mathematician? The extrovert stares at YOUR shoes when he talks to you. If he was with other mathematicians, he was OK, but in larger groups, he blended into the background. His history should have dictated that he become and remain a cubicle rat, or the uncool math teacher that had to wear the name tag at events because no one remembered him. And yet…
When he was teaching at the college level, he attracted math students from a large area. He attended math seminars with others and quickly gained a reputation as someone with insight and creativity–both items essential in leadership. He was invited to conferences. He tested new math textbooks for publishers. His opinions were sought out and he made his college stand out from the others. When he started his new career as a computer programmer, he helped land several of the large accounts because people recognized his acuity for getting projects done on time and under budget, and products that were more efficient and flexible than the client could have wished or imagined. But he wasn’t the program manager. How did I discover he was a leader? He, too, was a Toastmaster. He had joined so he could be brave enough to take part in his church’s reenactment of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday services. But he got more than he bargained for. He also became a club officer, an area director, and most recently a division director–one that leads 4 areas comprised of 4 to 5 clubs each. His history didn’t define him, it refined him.
Both he and my other friend had chosen a path of leadership, starting in very different places. Neither one had come from a background of leadership, and neither seemed to be the leadership type, yet both became very influential in an international organization whose tag line is “Where Leaders are Made.” They used their history to refine their skills and their mindsets not hinder them.
Don’t let your history define you. Choose your path, and let your history refine you.