“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
This simple yet powerful question can be the catalyst for positive change in your life and, in turn, the lives you touch.
A quick internet search shows that variations of this question are attributed to Sebastian Thrun, popularized by Regina Dugan’s TEDTalk, and likely originated with Robert Schuller. Credit to all who have challenged others to take action based on its powerful premise.
At a local coffee shop less than a year ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing this very question. One of the first answers that came to me was, “I would speak to large audiences to inspire them to build a sense of belonging in their communities; to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
It was that question and answer that led me to pursue opportunities to do just that. And after months of crafting a meaningful message, developing networks to help shape the message and the methods to deliver it, lots of conversations with mentors who inspire large audiences on a regular basis, reading and more reading, writing and more writing, I presented my new message to an overflow crowd in a small presentation room at the Ontario Student Leadership Conference in Niagara Falls.
My message was well-received. The assembled student leaders and advisors were engaged throughout. The feedback I received was positive and encouraging. There were some passages I will edit moving forward; anecdotes that I thought would be effective that were not, ad libs that struck a chord that I will expand on. It was rewarding, satisfying, and hopefully a taste of things to come. I am pleased that I have been able to arrange further opportunities to share with larger audiences based on this humble beginning.
But enough about me.
What might your answer to that question be? Maybe it is a grand answer with life-changing potential like a different vocation or living in a faraway land. Maybe it is something within your current environment like asking for a promotion, a raise, or starting that DIY project you have always wanted to tackle. Perhaps it involves starting a conversation with a friend or relative about that topic that has been the elephant in the room for too long.
There are many multi-step plans and self-help strategies to make your answer to this question a reality. They will include concepts like understanding why your answer matters, why you want to achieve the answer, writing down your goal, finding someone to share your goal with, breaking the goal down into manageable tasks, counting the cost involved in these steps along the way, visioning what it will look like when you reach your goal, accessing your allies, waking up early in the morning, eating better, exercising, posting positive quotations and images on your social media, and more.
Meanwhile, as we contemplate our individual answers, might there be some that apply to all of us? Are there things we can all do that we know won’t fail? I believe there are, and that a commitment to doing them can bring positive change in our life, and in turn the lives of those we connect with.
Pay someone a compliment. Tell the person beside you as you read this, or that you drive with every day, or that you raise a child with, a genuine compliment that comes from something you know about them or have noticed about them, and watch them light up.
Offer a helping hand to someone who needs it. Is there a person you know is swamped at work? Or at home? Or swamped in a different way from being alone? Do something tangible to provide them some small relief. Knowing that someone thought to take action on their behalf will mean as much as the help you provide.
Here’s a good one: say you’re sorry. Want a sure ‘can’t fail’ action that will positively impact any relationship? Apologize. You may not even be convinced that what you did, or said, or didn’t do or say, requires an apology. Do it anyway. Long after the injustice (perceived or otherwise) is forgotten, the step you took to bring restoration will be remembered.
Give up something for someone else. Show gratitude. Be optimistic.
The list of things we can do that won’t fail, and that will in turn make our lives better and enrich the lives of others, is longer than we might have first imagined. And the great thing is they don’t require a multi-step plan or a new self-help strategy to achieve. They just need a commitment to putting the interests of someone else ahead of our own.
One of the keys to the growth in our school’s Student Leadership program, and the impact it has on our school community, has been a focus on the concept of “Servant Leadership”. To help everyone understand the foundation of servant leadership we summarize it by using the phrase, “It’s not about you.” This indicates to our leadership group that their main focus will be to serve our school community, not their own interests or agenda.
This concept is the power of “Servant Leadership”, but it is also the power of everything else foundational to healthy relationships and community. In describing the importance of this little phrase, I considered calling it “the secret” of servant leadership and everything else, but it so much more than that. And with everybody on the internet claiming to have the secret to this and that it is hard to believe there are many secrets left!
The word ‘power’ has two meanings. The first is the power a person or object has to accomplish things, such as the power of Niagara Falls to produce electricity. It can also mean what lies behind a person or object that makes it strong. For example, Martin Luther King’s power could be found in his ability to move people to action through his eloquence and example.
Let’s start with the latter notion. The idea “It’s Not About You” is the power behind servant leadership because it makes it difficult for those being served to take issue with the methods or motivation of an effective servant leader. With an extensive outward focus on helping new students make the transition to high school, supporting many local, provincial, and national charities, and offering events of interest to a wide range of students, not just themselves, the actions of our school leadership group matches their words. This is vital, as nothing can undermine the effectiveness of a leader faster than the perception that they are in it for themselves.
Having a group buy into the notion “It’s not about you” provides the coherence and togetherness necessary to have an impact on the community they seek to serve. Individual agendas and the desire to be in charge or to control others all have the potential to undermine their overall mission. Understanding, and trusting, that everyone is on the same page with respect to setting aside selfishness frees up our group to focus on their mission of “leaving our school a better place than we found it” and minimizes internal drama. Like the water flowing through the generating stations at Niagara Falls, the force of a group focusing outward on common service is relentless and can light up a community.
Most of you, I suspect, may not have the privilege of working alongside students over a period of time and shaping a positive leadership culture. However, all of you function alongside people in a myriad of other settings. And in those settings you are a leader, regardless of your title or lack thereof. After all, as John C. Maxwell explains, “Leadership is influence, nothing more nothing less.”
Imagine the possibilities if you adopted the mantra “It’s not about you” in all of your relationships. Might your marriage be transformed if your spouse came to trust that your actions were focused more on their interests and less on yours? Would your children respond differently to your requests if they could see that their thoughts and concerns carried as much weight in family decisions as yours (when reasonable to do so of course)?
Bringing this paradigm to ones work community would have positive effects on your place of employment too. Would co-workers not be easier to work with once they realized you were there to serve? Your relationship with your direct reports would flourish as they understood that you were there to advance their career interests as well. And what boss wouldn’t be happy to promote a faithful worker with a servant leadership view of the company? A change of focus from ‘what’s in it for me’ - which can make everyday a battle to exploit every situation for one’s own good - to ‘who can I help today’ moves you closer to the magic place where you never really work a day in your life.
A lot of power, and potential, in a little phrase. I urge you to check it out for yourself. I would love to hear about the difference it makes for you.