“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.
I first think of the line “Watch out for that first step - it’s a doozy” as another smart aleck jab delivered by that ‘wascally wabbit’ Bugs Bunny to his hapless pursuer Elmer Fudd. Bugs opens a door on the edge of a cliff sending Fudd to yet another untimely cartoon demise. It later passed into pop culture when uttered by annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson to Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in the time-loop comedy “Groundhog Day” as Phil steps off the curb into a deep puddle of slush.
The phrase came back to me as I pondered what to share in my first blog post. It’s not that I couldn’t think of what to share. I have lots to share on building community, the importance of relationships, servant leadership, being part of something bigger than yourself, longing for belonging, how to move people from where they are to where they could be, how the Blue Jays should invest their free agent money this off-season, and more.
It is my hope that my thoughts on these topics might be helpful whether you are seeking to invigorate a school, service club, public organization, corporate environment; or perhaps you are just looking for some perspective that will help you be a better friend, leader, educator, spouse, parent, or community member.
The question remained not what to write about, but what to write about first. “I am probably overthinking what to share first”, I told myself. I was stuck in paralysis from analysis. But in my mind this first step was still a doozy.
So I decided to start with a simple message that can serve as a touchstone for a series of subsequent posts.
In my years as a Student Activities Council Advisor (SAC) and Leadership teacher we have had the size of our group grow from 25 students when I began in the role to well over 200 full time SAC members, Leadership students and elected Homeroom Reps today. This growth, and more importantly the magnitude of the difference we are able to make in our school community, is built on three foundational principles:
On the surface these three foundational principles seem simple enough. The first two are cliches; the third one I authored myself. But taken together and grown into a group’s DNA over time they have tremendous power to transform any group looking to increase their numbers and the positive impact they can have, individually and collectively, on others.
Each of these principles are worthy of a blog post of their own and I will certainly expand on them moving forward. There is lots of truth and nuance to explain in each of them.
As to my remembrance of how the title phrase was uttered in the cartoon world, I consulted Google to learn the phrase is indeed from a Bugs Bunny cartoon ‘Jack Wabbit and the Beanstalk’ (1943). It turns out it wasn’t said by Bugs to Fudd, but rather by the Giant (of Beanstalk fame) after Bugs directs him away from an elevator at the top of the beanstalk to a fake sign showing stairs. The Giant says the line “Watch out for that first step - it’s a lulu” emerging from the crater he creates after taking the bait and plunging thousands of feet to earth. The line in its title form was indeed said by Ned to Phil on the slushy streets of Punxsutawney, PA in “Groundhog Day”.
The lesson here is that the internet can be a great place to fine-tune and revisit one’s own experience and improve it moving forward. I hope that this blog might be become part of that for you: a place to fine-tune and revisit your experience as a friend, leader, educator, spouse, parent, or community member, and improve it moving forward.
Thoughts from Jeff
Check back for the latest from Jeff.....
Upcoming and Recent Engagements
Assorted Past Engagements
West Shamokin Jr/Sr High - Sept, 2023
Rural Valley, PA
Armstrong Jr/Sr High - Sept, 2023
Digby Regional High School - May 4, 2023
Lockview HS - May 3, 2023
Fall River, NS
Three Oaks High School - May 2, 2023
Global Student Leadership Summit - May 1, 2023
Waterloo Collegiate Institute - April 27, 2023
Swope Middle School - April 14, 2023
Horizons Tour - April 2-4, 2023
Edmonton, Lloydminster, Vermillion AB
Clayton Heights Secondary School - Mar 8, 2023
Fleetwood Secondary School - Mar 7, 2023
Rutland Senior Secondary School - Mar 6, 2023
California Association of Directors of Activities (CADA) - Mar 3, 2023
San Diego, CA
Western University Education Conference - Feb 22, 2023
Solon Middle School - Feb 20, 2023
Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute - Feb 9, 2023
Geneseo Central School District - Feb 1, 2023
Armstrong School District - Jan 16, 2023
Bridgeport School - Nov 16, 2022
Ontario Student Leadership Conference - Nov 6-8, 2022
Niagara Falls, ON
Hole in the Wall Gang Camp Staff Training - Nov 2, 2022
Stonewall Collegiate- Oct 14, 2022
MacGregor Collegiate - Oct. 13, 2022
Beaver Brae Secondary School - Oct 12, 2022
River Falls School District - Oct. 10, 2022
River Falls, WI*
Canadian Student Leadership Conference - Oct 6-8, 2022
Virbela Virtual Campus
AB Lucas Secondary School - Sep 21, 2022
Campbell County School District - Aug 15, 2022
Shasta County Office of Education - Aug 12, 2022
Livingston High School - Aug 9, 2022
Ripon Unified School District - Aug 8, 2022
Rockport-Fulton MS/HS - Aug 4, 2022
KIPP St Louis - Aug 3, 2022
St. Louis, MO*
Oak Ridge Schools - Jul 20, 2022
Oak Ridge, TN*
Arkansas City Public Schools - Jul 18, 2022
Arkansas City, KS*
Horizons Leadership Conference - May 24, 2022
Lockview HS, Fall River NS
CSLA Student Leadership MasterClass - May 12, 2022
MacLean Memorial School - May 2, 2022
Horizons Leadership Conference - Mar 8, 2022
Western University Education Conference - Feb. 22-25, 2022
London, ON (Virtual)
Avon Maitland DSB Remote Learning School - Jan 25, 2022
Canadian Student Leadership Conference - Oct 21-23, 2021
Global Student Leadership Days - May 18-19, 2021
Brock Student Leadership Summit - Mar 26, 2021
Brock University (Virtual)
Brant County Rec Staff Training, Dec. 21, 2020
High Performing Educator Podcast - Nov. 9, 2020
Global Student Leadership Days -May 6-7, 2020
Brock University ConEd, St Catherines ON - Mar 7, 2020
Saugeen DSS, Port Elgin, ON - Feb 18, 2020
CharacterStrong Podcast - Feb 3, 2020
Ridge High School, Basking Ridge, NJ - Jan 29, 2020*
CharacterStrong Podcast - Nov. 19, 2019
Decatur Public Schools, Decatur, IL - Nov. 6, 2019*
Ontario Student Leadership Conference, Niagara Falls, ON - Nov. 4, 2019
Ephrata High School, Ephrata WA - Oct. 11, 2019*
Canadian Student Leadership Conference - Sep 24-28, 2019
Gardner HS, Gardner Massachusetts - Aug 26, 2019*
Youth Leadership Camp Canada - Jul 17, 2019
Camp Belwood Staff Training - Jun 26, 2019
Camp Wabanaki Leadership Staff Training - Jun 23, 2019
City of Kitchener Neighbourhood Camps Staff - Jun 9, 2019
Nova Scotia SSSA, Antigonish, NS - May 17, 2019
Bluefield HS, North Wiltshire PEI - May 16, 2019
Spring OSLC, Kingston ON - May 12, 2019
McKinnon Park SS, Caledonia ON - May 10, 2019
John G. Diefenbaker High School, Calgary AB - May 6, 2019 Cochrane High School, Cochrane AB - May 6, 2019
Beaver Brae SS, Kenora ON - Apr 25, 2019
Windsor Park Collegiate, Winnipeg, MB - Apr 24, 2019
Carberry Collegiate, Carberry, MB - Apr 23, 2019
Columbia Basin Hospital - Ephrata, WA - TBA reschedule
Ephrata High School - Ephrata, WA- TBA reschedule
Thomas Jefferson High School - Auburn, WA - TBA reschedule
Georgian Bay Community School - Meaford, ON- TBA reschedule
John Rennie High School -Point Claire, QC - TBA reschedule