Reminiscing on my rise into leadership positions, I fondly recall specific moments that shaped me into the person I am now. It is clear to me, in retrospect, that during our lifetimes, we have opportunities that can frame our thinking and help define who we are.
Among the marks of great leaders is the ability to identify those moments as they occur – and then, later, recall them. By simply allowing them to stay rooted in our thoughts, we remain aware of the things that made us successful along the way. Great leaders always remember where they came from. And they keep a vision of where they are going.
One of my first recollections as a young, up-and-coming entrepreneur was that I didn’t know I could fail! I really didn’t know that most people thought “you aren’t supposed to succeed.” But I was fortunate in that, in the neighborhood where I spent my childhood, I was surrounded by very successful businessmen (it was only businessmen back then!).
“Succeed” was simply what you did. Everywhere I looked, I saw success physically manifested in the form of lovely homes, nice lawns, luxury cars, and in the conversations of the men who spoke of their businesses. And it probably didn’t hurt that Atlanta’s famous East Lake Country Club (Bobby Jones’ home course) was a block and a half down the street – where my family had been members for years.
But it wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d been exposed to a vision of what success really looked like! I’d been exposed to the great leaders in the Atlanta community and to many others who were “The Captains of Industry” in a much larger world. So understand, “the thought processes of success” had been defined clearly for me early on. Success was within reach! It was normal! People will support and help one another! I saw people leading and inspiring others all around me! I simply didn’t know any better. Lucky me!
But there was another key moment. This one lesson led me to a path which helped make me one of the top professionals in the sales world – and a multimillionaire. I was 14, and at that point in my life, I just wanted to earn some money. So my father gave me his blessing (and his lawnmower!) and off I went to start my own lawn mowing business.
With my attention to detail, I did pretty well for myself. I offered great customer service, tidiness and timeliness. But then it happened! I reached a point where I personally couldn’t take on any new clients. I was doing well, the referrals were coming in, but there were only so many hours in the day! Probably still are, I assume.
The results of my attention to detail, and always trying to do my best, were about to become another learning opportunity for me!
So I went to my father/mentor and we talked about it. Dad was a sharp businessman, long a leader in the community. Instead of teaching me to be “OK” with the status quo, he gave me new insights and information. He always taught through example. What he shared then was how to “leverage my time” by learning new skills. He showed me that these new skills, coupled with my personal efforts, could impact people’s lives for a greater good. He taught me how to create a win-win-win situation!
He taught me “The Art & Science of Selling,” along with the importance of delegation and management. A leader himself, he taught me how to be a leader within my own neighborhood. Here I was - age 14 - and I understood that, if I wanted to, I could grow my lawn mowing company. And that, if I wanted to reach a bigger goal, I had to enlist the efforts of others. I had to sell other kids on “the vision” of working for me.
I had to create a vision and build trust amongst my customers by backing up what I said. I had to follow through on my word. I also had to lead, inspire, teach, and learn how to manage my friends to make sure they did the job I was selling. These skills laid a foundation that allowed me to achieve the success I have today - and it all started because my father saw my leadership potential. He reached out and taught me. He inspired me. He helped me to see “the leader” within myself. And he stood aside in order to let me find my own way in applying these skills.
A great leader knows when to inspire; a great leader knows when to delegate. The best leaders understand that, first, you must be the student. Amongst my peers at 14, I was a leader. We were literally the wealthiest 14 year olds around, and it all started out because I sought direction from someone who had shown me he knew how to be successful. I was willing to learn from a mentor.
Today I am able to take the same basic principles I learned when I was 14 and teach them to millions of people around the world.
Another defining moment that shaped me into the person I am today was when I married. Remember, I grew up in an environment where men were strong and they showed manifestations of their success by physical things. But then, after I moved out of my parents’ home, I lived the life of a typical, young bachelor. I was “making it” on my own. My bachelor pad was simple - with ‘guy furniture’ and ‘guy things’. “Simple,” mainly.
I never really gave any of this a second thought until I moved “my things” out of my bachelor pad - and into “the home” in which my new bride and I were to reside. After all of those days of living as a bachelor, “my things” never bothered me. But, now that I had a new bride to take care of, those same things simply wouldn’t do. They were not good enough for her. I needed to create a home for us.
The desire to want more, and the unsettled feeling that comes from the status quo, is another characteristic within an up and coming leader. The motivation to ‘do something’ comes from an unsettled feeling with the way things are, or the way things have “always been.” Most times, a leader is not motivated purely by a self-need. Often, the best leaders are motivated to improve, change, take care of, and teach/inspire others so that they may have something better!
To achieve this, you have to have a willingness to grow, a willingness to put yourself in a position of unfamiliar territory. Discovering “the leader within” awakens a desire that is stronger than self. It is about continuing the cycle of learning, growing, teaching and then giving back. Most people just need some direction to achieve great things - but it takes a person willing to give some direction to help put those opportunities into motion.
When you look at yourself and start to identify your leadership abilities, remember this: Great leaders are always willing to improve. They also understand that, when they communicate with others, “the best of the best” will focus all of their attention on the person to whom they speak - blocking out all others to give undivided attention to the one to whom they speak. It’s a “skill set” to practice and refine.
Once you’ve found your leadership potential, it’s time to learn! I clearly remember one of the biggest defining moments in my whole career. This one event solidified for me the desire to really be the best I could be. In 1965 I was working for a man named Bill Patrick. I was later hired by his company to be one their sales trainers.
One day, I was with a group of other trainers teaching our students how to sell. We all had a training manual to teach from. I had accidentally left mine in an adjacent room and, when I went to retrieve it, I overheard a conversation that changed me forever!
I overheard Bill Patrick, the owner of the company, talking to the president; they were talking about me. Bill had apparently seen my leadership potential and had just watched a video of me at work. He made this statement: “I will pay more for the ability to communicate and lead than any other skills... and Ben has them!
Quickly and quietly, I left the room. And I left with a changed perspective and understanding of what others find truly valuable. From that moment on, I made a commitment to myself to take every opportunity to learn, grow and refine my skills as a communicator and leader.
I had seen my leadership potential early on, but now I was ready to truly embrace it. Before this moment, making money to provide for my family and live a life that I was accustomed to as a young boy was my motivation. But acknowledgment from others regarding my abilities became a much stronger motivator and opened the door to learning even more!
Part of my growth has always come from having interesting friends and putting myself into situations that have allowed me to speak with, study and learn from these colorful people. Leadership can be seen everywhere and in every circumstance. The best leaders always see learning opportunities. When you find the leader within yourself, here are a couple of things to understand and always remember.
First, leadership comes with privilege. You receive privilege as a leader, but the best leaders remember where they came from. They understand that, with that leadership, they are now responsible for those they lead.
If you use your leadership for the benefit of all, it’s a win-win-win situation. You deserve to reap the rewards and accolades for a job well done! But if you choose to use your leadership skills to the detriment of others, you also deserve the negative consequences that come with it.
Last, as an up and coming leader finding your way, I share with you “The Yellow Door”.
My good friend, the late great Ray Considine, who was a great leader in his own right, was at the launch of a major entertainment event with his family and some friends. Everyone there for the event was standing in line to get into the front door. As it was the grand opening of the attraction, the line and wait were long. Two or three hours!
Ray, being the consummate leader, decided not to have his friends and family wait that long. He looked around the location and, off to the back side of the building, he spotted a bright yellow door. It was the back door to the building. Not being one to settle for the status quo, he took action!
He went to the door and found a worker. Ray spoke to him as only Ray could. A few minutes later, Ray, his friends and his family, were inside the new exhibit – right up front! – only they had entered through “The Yellow Door”! The wait time? About 5 minutes. But everyone else waited for hours!
Leaders always know there is another way. If you have found your leader within, and if you are ready to engage and grow, remember that, if your first approach at leadership doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it, there’s always another solution! If your results fall short - keep trying! Keep learning! Keep growing! “The Yellow Door” is everywhere - just seek the alternate solution and allow your leader within to thrive!
Over the past 40+ years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling all over the world and have been thrust into thousands of “interesting” experiences and opportunities – some big, some small. And, thanks to Ray Considine, I have almost always found “The Yellow Doors” of life.
By Ben Gay III
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