Encouragement. Sometimes we need it. Sometimes we need to give it. It is the greatest gift and can change a life forever.
There was a time and place when a profound experience changed my life.
The year was 2001 and I was on a quest. A quest to break free of the conventional boundaries I had placed on myself for many years and explore the world of coaching and mentoring—with the ultimate goal of becoming a good leader.
I found a prestigious leadership conference in San Diego, California, that I wanted to attend. It included incredible presenters I had only read about in books or watched in videos: Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”; Marshall Goldsmith, mentor, and coach to the world’s Fortune Top 10; Phil Knight, coach of the LA Lakers basketball team; Beverly Kaye, author of “Love ’em or Lose ’em: Getting Good People to Stay”; and Warren Bennis, one of my all-time leadership mentors.
The conference registration was expensive, and the accommodations were much more expensive. The hotel was an amazing 5-star resort surrounded by water, with lush, well-manicured landscapes that reminded me of Disneyland. Walking into the front doors of the hotel nearly took my breath away as my eyes tried to take it all in. “This is where the leaders of the world stay. One day, I will know the secrets to become a great leader.”
To travel to the accommodations I could afford required a 20-minute trolley ride into the heart of the city to a very small studio room with the basic necessities. I brought along cheese and crackers, nuts, and water, and to me, it was the perfect place to be.
I had arrived, and tomorrow I would learn how to become a leader.
The trolley to the conference that next morning took longer than I had planned, so I found myself hurrying to a seat in the back of the room where Marshall Goldsmith would present on leadership and mentoring. I was in my element: an environment of learners learning to be successful and how to lead.
I began to acknowledge and then challenge her fear by telling her how courageous, intelligent, and amazing she was, and that I had every belief that she would use this experience to grow stronger, to fight harder, and to live big!
Toward the middle of the session, a woman slipped in and took a seat beside me. Her name was Bev. During a breakout session, Bev and I began to share stories. During one of the stories, she said to me in a quiet voice, “I’m a little fearful. This is my first time out with the public in months.” I asked why and she went on to say she had battled cancer. As a woman, I could understand how she felt when she told me what the cancer had taken away. I began to acknowledge and then challenge her fear by telling her how courageous, intelligent, and amazing she was, and that I had every belief that she would use this experience to grow stronger, to fight harder, and to live big! The day’s session ended and so did my time with Bev. I gathered all my notes and headed off to wait in line for the trolley to take me to my room.
The next morning, I arrived at the conference really early to get a seat in the auditorium’s front row. A national keynote speaker would start the day, and I did not want to miss a thing or be distracted by the crowd. The music started to play, and the lights were shining out into the audience. I could feel the excitement and energy in the room grow. The announcer began to introduce the speaker, and we all rose to our feet as her name came over the loudspeaker, “Please, put your hands together for this world-renowned speaker and author, Beverly Kaye!”
Oh, dear father! A mixture of panic and embarrassment came over me. It was Bev! My Bev, who yesterday was just like me.
But, wait, I thought, “Who do I think I am to give her advice on courage, living, and life?” The next 30 minutes of her presentation became a blur and then she was done. I continued on through the day’s sessions, and with a full bag of notes, I made my way down the escalator and headed for the front door. Just as I was waiting for the large doors to open, I felt an arm slip under my right arm and then another under my left. On my right was my Bev, and on the left was Marshall Goldsmith.
“Where are you going?” Bev asked. After telling her that I was going to wait for the trolley to take me back to my room, she smiled and said, “Good. You are coming with us.” She went on to say they were hosting a reception, as Marshall pushed the “Penthouse” button in the elevator. I knew where we were going and knew I did not belong. You see, to have a one-hour opportunity to be with the top 20 influential leaders from around the world and receive numerous materials on leadership you would have to pay $1,000 to attend a wine and hors d’oeuvres social. I quickly said, “I’m sorry I can’t attend since I didn’t pay.” With that, they both laughed and said, “There is no need. You are our guest.”
When the doors opened to the penthouse, my eyes could not believe what I was seeing. It was one of the largest and most beautiful penthouses I had ever imagined. The small intimate group of people all looked up and smiled warmly when we entered the room. Here I was with leaders from all over the world that I had read about in books and watched on television.
It was also a day of significance to me, the one-year anniversary of the horrific 9/11 tragedy in New York, and our time ended with a nod to the devastation that happened on that day.
I do not remember the name of the man who stood up in front of the room and said, “We welcome new friends to our circle.” I could not believe I was one of them! He went on to say, “Many of us here know each other. We are but one year from the 9/11 tragedy. I would like to go around the room and hear from each one of us about our biggest fears.”
Our planned one-hour together turned into nearly three hours as, one by one, these incredible voices shared their fears. I was humbled and inspired.
It was then my turn.
With all the courage I had, I said, “I work in a world of academics, where titles are held at a high standard called success. If they knew where I came from and the degrees I do not possess, I am fearful I will not be held in high regard as a leader.”
In that moment, I began to feel what the words “acceptance” and “encouragement” actually meant.
A leader took each of my hands in theirs, and Bev placed her hand over my heart and said in a soft voice, “Great leaders are not made from position or paper. Great leaders start here.”