Few would argue against the belief that modeling leadership is really the best form of instruction. As students of this art, we often look for examples in everyday life that embody the characteristics of leadership we desperately want for ourselves. Like some, this modeling was something I recognized at a very young age. The examples were all around me; my parents, teachers and other influential luminaries moving through my life and their own. This particular example I will attempt to describe was of the first time I saw an expression of leadership through charity. I must first explain a little about my journey.
As a youth I embraced the concept of focus early on. My decision to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces was one I recall being solidified as early as the age of 10 or 11 years old. I had convinced myself that my path to this profession lay in my eventual attendance at one of the U.S. Service Academies. I have always been a predominantly straight-line thinker and have lived by a personal mantra of action and momentum yielding results. Growing up in the inner city, one can become obsessed with the idea of finding a way out. Witnessing the waste of talent and the daily demise of lives through the exercise of poor decisions sure to stop even the most well-intentioned person from achieving their goals, it would be easy to view the environment as inescapable.
Through this personal experience, I developed a strong belief in the power of the educational system. I believed then, as I do now, that successful matriculation through our educational system serves as the key to access in our country and through it most things are possible. I say most because of the reality that access doesn’t ensure success. There are combinations of intangibles, resident in our society, which result in tremendous levels of success for some and their preparation and execution have nothing to do with it.
Growing up in a financially scarce environment, I had no reason to think I would have access to an exclusive education. Sometime around the age of 13, I developed the earnest belief that the private school system, in the D.C. area, would better serve to prepare me for my intended goals. I sincerely believed in the ability of a particular private school to prepare me for my future and I presented the idea of attending this school to my mother; a single parent laden with the financial responsibilities of raising three young boys on a rather nominal salary. The cost alone, for four years of a private school education, would be the greatest annual expense my mother had undertaken at this point in her life, other than the mortgage on our home. The fact that she would bear down and accept this tremendous financial task gives some insight into her belief that this path might make the difference in my future. Notably, a sacrifice that some inner-city mothers undertake with high hopes of superior outcomes, with no guarantees.
My mother marshaled her limited resources and took out loans. I attended my chosen school and thrived in a way that ultimately served as a catalyst for most of my professional success in life. It was regimented, competitive and served to prepare me for the academic rigors of college. Mentally I was a little bit of a fish out of water, but I carried myself everyday as if I belonged to this exclusive charter. Most of the other boys clearly enjoyed a level of economic security not present for most kids from my side of town and this was apparent through every interaction, slight or involved. Somehow, through loans and the occasional assistance of family, my mother endured the first three years of the financial burden of sending me to this bastion of conservative upbringing. When I tell people I attended an all boys, JROTC, Catholic high school located in one of the most upscale regions of the Nation’s Capital it quickly belies my upbringing, which was diametrically opposed geographically and socially from the location and environment I thrived in for four years. I was exposed to my first real experiences in the art of leadership at this school. Peer leadership, competition through drill and marksmanship, discipline, and bearing were all components of my developmental experience. But my journey was almost interrupted by the realities of life.
An example of leadership through charity came in an artful way the summer before my senior year. As I approached what was to be the pinnacle of this experience, the financial burden of sending me to a private school had reached its natural barrier for a single-mother of three. With lending institutions and family literally tapped out, my mother began to bear the stress of an inability to make the approaching payment of tuition for my final year in high school. Honestly, I can’t recall the amount. Whatever it was in 1986 dollars, my mother raised us paycheck to paycheck and it was not an amount she could muster this one last time, without significant intervention. I should add, at this point my mother was a senior professional staff employee with the U.S. Department of Justice, a secretary and paralegal. The Fed employs a good number of Washingtonians and thankfully so. As was the practice during those times, my mother had worked for a particular senior attorney for several years. He was a friendly man of means and well-respected in the department. Through my years in the private school system he had always asked my mother if I was doing well and by her accounts pleased to hear of my ongoing success.
My mother has always worn her stress on her sleeve. During the summer of 1986 as her financial responsibilities mounted, my mother’s boss began to see how the stress was effecting her disposition and probably her work. Showing the compassion of a leader, the boss pressed my mother to explain the difficulty she was experiencing. After hearing the story and without skipping a beat, he picked up the phone, explained the financial difficulty my mother was experiencing to his wife and asked her to bring a check totaling the full amount of my tuition to their downtown offices. His wife agreed with the decision to help and the check was presented to my mother as an open-ended loan to be paid whenever she had the means. This act of charity had a profound effect on my future. I thrived during my senior year and more than met my academic goals resulting in an acceptance to the only college I had ever wanted to attend. My mother paid back the entire amount in a period of about 8 months, finally reaching a decision to move from our inner city home to her first suburban experience, resulting in some limited financial benefit.
In viewing this experience I have chosen to apply this lesson many times in my professional life. If you choose not to help someone professionally, when you are capable or have the means, what kind of comment does this make about your leadership? Sometimes this help comes through position and other times through offering access to your network. Sometimes these selfless acts go under-appreciated, but they offer you the ability to give something back and potentially impact people’s lives in an unforeseen way. Charity, the voluntary giving of help, can come in many forms and often times you are unable to trace the ripple effects of the simple act of helping someone else. Like pebbles in a pond, the ripples extend far beyond your reach.
Years later, after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy; completing my career as a U.S. Marine; and embarking on a career in public service, I contacted my mother’s old boss, by then an elderly man in his senior years, and I thanked him for his act of charity and expressed to him the impact such a thoughtful act had on the trajectory of my life. The beauty of his charitable act was that he did not recall the events I relayed to him. I believed this to be a comment of the quality of his character and not a reflection of the forgetfulness that accompanies our senior years. I can only hope, in the twilight of my life, to have helped so many in any way that I was able, that I don’t recall every single circumstance of charity. Leadership takes many shapes and I hope this example shows the lasting impact of a simple and charitable act.