Heading to one of my accounts last week, I slowed down as I headed to the cash lane at the turnpike toll. As the car ahead of me was pulling away, I crept forward to pay my dues to our state’s Highway Department. An older woman, probably about retirement age and average health, leaned out with her hand for my toll. What she did next took me totally off guard.
“Happy Birthday,” she exclaimed. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what she said, and as I started to ask “Huh?” she seemed to anticipate my confusion. “Happy birthday,” she said again. I then caught her eyes quickly glance at the inspection sticker on my windshield. A square decal with a large “9” on it. In New Hampshire as in other states, your car registration and inspection are due every year on your birth month.
As soon I had this knowledge dropped on me, I instantly beamed. “Oh, thank you so much!” The pointing to the sticker, I said “Very observant of you, yes, thank you!” And without wanting to hold back traffic, I sped away to my destination.
In the moments right afterward, I thought to myself: How many people has this woman influenced today, this month, or even for this year? And not only by noticing people’s birth months, but in other ways that I didn’t even have an opportunity to experience?
I replayed the circle of emotions I felt after discovering her kindness. She made my day, and I was more energized than I would have been listening to the recap of the Red Sox’s win over the Yankees the night before.
But what struck me as a lesson for all of us is how she displayed some great leadership qualities with her emotional generosity. Leadership, you may ask? How does this toll booth worker exhibit leadership skills? Allow me to explain my observations.
First, a leader is one who uses their sphere of influence for the positive impact of those around them. From business executives to local volunteers, leaders move their world forward and upward by having a vision of what their world looks like, then imparting that to others throughout the course of their tenure. This woman had a goal of brightening people’s days and hoping that would translate into a positive impact on their world and beyond.
Second, a leader takes full advantage of their situations and surroundings to be the best and lead others to be their best. Despite their circumstances, leaders will leverage their point in time to make the best of the given situation to drive their vision upward. Dick Vitale could have used his firing from being head coach of the Detroit Pistons to hold him back. After reaching what seemed to be the top of his game, he was at the bottom. But instead, he realized he could have more far reaching impact to fan the flame of his passion for college basketball on the infant ESPN channel. for the next 3 decades, college hoops has a great following of fans thanks to Dick letting his fall from grace rob him of his ability to influence others. This woman at the toll booth is not letting what some people may deem a lowly position to deter her goal of making people’s days brighter. She sees it as the vehicle to reach thousands of others in their lives.
Finally, a leader is one who quietly serve others, with no thought or covetousness of reward, other than to do what they do passionately. Yes, leaders get compensated – great salaries, recognition, medals, and so on. Volunteers may even get awards and press write ups. This lady even gets a paycheck for her efforts each day. Yet I submit to you that the truly great leaders do not think merely of their role as merely means-gaining, but as world-changing. Whether they receive the pay or the praise, nothing in the world thrills them more than so see their influence impact those around them for a greater cause, a cause they fully believe in and fully intend to help others to see, no matter what the cost to themselves. They put all other desires aside to champion this cause. The lady in the toll booth is probably seem by some as weird, getting a “Why are you being nice to me?’ reaction from those who scorn such positive behaviors. But she sets aside those feelings, the feelings of “I’m just a toll booth worker” and the feelings of “I should have been something else in my life” and she willingly, gladly even, makes her mark in her world by putting the needs of others first.
If this woman can lead people by her inspiration, what is holding you back from impacting your world for the goals you believe in?
It has been a discussion for the ages, whether leaders are born or made. Countless philosophers, professors, businessmen, and thought leaders have posed and continue to debate that question. There is an answer, but before we can know that we must first know the truth about leadership potential.
When one identifies the essential qualities of a leader, their is one common mindset that every leader, great or small (there are no small leaders by the way), in whatever sphere of influence they have, possess. That core ingredient is the mindset to lead. The minds of every leader in every generation, in every walk of life, were able to adopt a way of thinking to see a vision, gather the resources, instill the vision, and motivate others to act. Whether it’s President Roosevelt or Sir Winston Churchill in WWII, Richard Branson, Knute Rockne or Dolly Madison, or the high school history teacher that everyone fondly remembers the lessons they taught, each and every one were able to positively say within themselves “I know what needs to be done, and I can do it.”
Each leader, as a person of their own free will, had decisions to make continually over the course of their lives that culminated in being able to lead when the time was ready. They all had struggles, setbacks, times of discouragement, and failures. Yet they were able to keep saying inside “I can rise above this”. So they chose to pursue the mindset that enabled them to be confident in themselves; an adoption of positive self-speak and perseverance. One they chose, in spite of their circumstances and in spite of their temptations to pack it in and take the easy road to complacency and obscurity. They chose it over the defeatist and despairing pull on the human psyche.
While some people may scoff and say “But I can’t be like them”, think again with this fact. Every single person who has ever lived has faced thoughts of fear, self doubt, and inadequacy. When faced with those circumstances, we can choose to meld our thoughts into negative feelings, and be hostage to them. Or we can choose the other path, the path that gives us self-worth, confidence, and a positive outlook. It’s a choice. If you can think a negative thought towards yourself, you can think a positive one.
Abraham Lincoln could have easily chosen the thoughts to keep him form public service, and not pursue a career in politics. But he made up his mind to hold malice to no one, including himself, and this changed the course of our country in a time where leadership was in dire need. Men and women overcame their poor childhoods to become rags-to-riches stories, stories we have in abundance, because they chose the mindset that set them up to lead.
Thoughts are a choice. You can choose to be angry at the false accusation, or choose to turn the other cheek. Choose to take the failure hard and blame bad luck or gear up for the next adventure. These are the thoughts that will ultimately free us from our prison of incapability. Thoughts that produce a mindset to win, succeed, lead, and enrich not just your life but countless others. You can choose. Choose to lead.