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No matter the time of year, there is always something that deserves our gratitude. But with Americans celebrating Thanksgiving this week, it’s prompted me to think specifically about the leaders who have impacted my life, and those for whom I’m unendingly grateful.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about a few specific leaders and the leadership lessons I’ve learned from them. Two people in particular stand out for the leadership values they instilled in me: my childhood cello teacher and the founder of the camp I went to every summer. I can’t thank them enough for the two essential leadership qualities they taught me that I’ve unconsciously taken with me in my career and in my personal leadership development.
1. Strive for excellence in all things.
One of my earliest memories is the moment I chose to play the cello. At the age of 4, I was lucky enough to start taking lessons from a teacher who trained her students via the Suzuki method. This teaching philosophy is based on a disciplined practice where you cannot move on to the next step or song until you’ve completely mastered the song you’re currently learning. When I was 8, my teacher explained that a piece of the philosophy was inspired by a popular quote from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
From that point on, excellence was the only option for me. Within my sphere of influence and control, I’ve always made it my goal to be excellent in everything I do in my career and at home. Learning this lesson has also allowed me to recognize the people in my life who also seek excellence in all things, and lets me appreciate their leadership even more for it. In fact, I’ve found that settling for less than excellence feels like a disservice to yourself, the people you lead and those who came before you.
Working toward excellence all the time can lead to some challenges—namely perfectionism that can be a detriment to your work-life balance and level of stress. That’s where the balance comes in: aim for excellence in all the things and opportunities that are in your sphere of influence and control, but also know when to say no.
2. Know presence speaks greater than volume.
For nearly 10 summers, I attended a sports camp near Pittsburgh that helped mold who I am as a leader. The camp’s founder, Jim Welch, is an incredible man whose miraculous life story inspires people year-round. When he was a young man, he became an example of why people say never to pick up a hitchhiker. As he was driving one day, he stopped to pick up a hitchhiker who later tried to kill him. The man slashed Jim’s throat and left him for dead on the side of the road. Thankfully, a good samaritan came along and took him to the hospital, which saved his life.
While his voice never fully recovered or returned, Jim didn’t let it stop him from having a voice in serving others. He went on to build and found a camp that has impacted thousands of people over the last five decades.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from Jim over all of my summers at camp is being a leader is not about being the loudest person in the room.
That may seem like an obvious point but how often have you been in a meeting where the same person always has to make a comment and ensure their opinion is known? Don’t get me wrong, it’s crucial to use your voice and steward your seat at the table well. But oftentimes, using your voice and stewarding that seat actually means showing up, being present, thinking critically and then being the person people ask for opinions because they know you’ve been observant and perceptive.
Jim’s presence at camp was noticed. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t flashy and he wasn’t onstage. But he was present at everything, and was constantly thinking about how to improve both the camp and the lives of the people on his staff and the kids in his care. I can only aspire to be the type of leader Jim has been in the lives of so many.
This Thanksgiving, whether you’re in America celebrating the holiday or not, join the movement of gratitude and think about the leadership qualities you are perfecting. Who taught them to you? What did you learn from those people about what it means to be a Leader Worth Following?
Give them a shoutout on social media using #ThankALeader and share your gratitude with the world. Better yet, pick up the phone and call those leaders to share your gratitude with them.