I was twenty-one years old and like most college kids, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
This concept infuriated me: the one that tells teenagers to pick a college major and to in turn, at the ripe age of eighteen, plan out a career that they will enjoy and prosper for many years later. Why is it that we are expected to decide what we want to do for the rest of our lives in such a small window of time? The image below displays how ridiculous this is.
Unlike millions of college kids across the world, I was very fortunate to meet some incredibly impactful mentors during college. One, whom I will tell you about here, is a decorated Marine Officer (retired).
During college, I started learning about the Marine Corps – its history, its function, and its grandeur. I knew a lot about all of the other branches of the military, but the thing that really sparked my interest in the Marine Corps was my friend Sam’s dad.
Sam’s dad was a retired Marine Officer who served 22 years and held many roles, including Intelligence Officer. When he retired, at the ripe age of 42, Sam’s dad spun up a completely new career and quickly climbed to be Vice President of Sales within a major Fortune 500 Financial company.
Basically, the way I saw it, Sam’s dad was the man. He had given his life to serving our nation in the toughest branch of fighters in the world, and then, he went out, put on a suit and tie, and crushed it in the business world.
“Can I talk to your dad?” I asked Sam one day. I wasn’t even sure why I wanted to.
“Sure,” Sam said, “here is his email address, but give him a few days to respond. He’s pretty busy.”
That night, I sent Sam’s dad an email asking to speak with him, either in person or over the phone. I told him that I understood he had a busy schedule, but any amount of time he could spare me would be greatly appreciated.
He replied within just a few minutes, “Can you come to my house tomorrow? Here is my address…”
The next day, I drove to Sam’s dad’s house. I still didn’t know why I wanted to meet with him, but I felt admiration for his military service and for his career success. In a time when I felt lost in my own future, not even sure where to begin, I suppose I just needed to see someone on the other end of the journey. Someone who had come out the other side successfully.
The house was big and new and when I walked in the front door a beautiful Golden Retriever named Bob tackled me. Sam’s mom, Barb, appeared behind the Retriever in an apron (she was baking), and held him back while greeting me and asking me if I wanted any coffee.
Then, Sam’s dad appeared from his office adjacent to the front door and he greeted me with a soft smile. For a second, however, his eyes peered right through me. It felt as if he was was sizing me up.
I sized him up too. Sam’s dad looked young for his age, but the wrinkles next to his eyes showed he had been through more than what appeared at first glance. I remember quickly, he was a retired warrior and a business executive, but there was more here than just fancy titles. He took me to his office where a Mameluke Officer Sword hung over his desk. He reached for a stack of books then said, “Follow me to the basement.”
once downstairs, Sam’s dad asked me question after question. I opened up without reprieve, knowing that if he didn’t truly know me, he couldn’t somehow help me. It was humbling to see that he was genuinely curious about me as a man, or boy, whichever I was at that time. I had written down a few questions of my own, and I fired back when he gave me the chance.
Visiting Sam’s dad that night changed my life. No, I didn’t end up joining the Marine Corps (that is another story for another time), but I did learn some valuable lessons about leadership that have stuck with me in my adult years. Below are those lessons, and some context that I hope help you in your own quest, wherever you may be and wherever you are trying to go.
#1 Don’t Look Too Far Ahead
At the time of this meeting, I was trying to choose a career, a spouse, and a life. I was setting goals 5 and 10 years out. Sam’s dad helped me to settle down the anxiety of the future and to look only at my next few steps. He explained to me that a good value-system will guide each step, and as long as that is in place, there is no need to look much further. Doing so would bring unnecessary angst.
“Don’t look too far ahead,” he told me, “just think and pray about this next step. Let your values guide you.”
#2 You Will Never be 100% Sure About Any Major Decision
Joining the military, getting married, choosing a career, and many other major life decisions hung over me. “How do I know if I should make this decision or not?”
I asked Sam’s dad: “I don’t know if I am 100% on this next step. I think there is a small piece of me that isn’t quite sure. What do I do?”
Sam’s dad paused for a moment, then said:
“With major life decisions, you will never feel 100%. What you have to do is get to 80% instead. Then, say a prayer and jump. No decision will feel 100%, but if you can get to 80%, then take the leap and have faith.”
This mindset has given me the confidence to advance at work, purchase a home, marry my wife, and many other major life decisions.
#3 Leaders Intellectually Stimulate People
“As a Marine Officer, I had eighteen and nineteen-year-old kids reporting to me,” Sam’s dad started, “these kids were young, brave, and hungry for a leader. In order to engage and grow them, I had to open their hearts and their minds to realize their own potential and to understand the world around them.”
“A leader must intellectually stimulate people. A leader should never stop reading, learning and questioning.”
Sam’s dad then walked me through each of the books he had brought into the basement. It wasn’t about these books in particular, but rather the continuous journey for improvement and learning.
#4 Leaders Inspire and Motivate
Motivating is about one thing: caring deeply about the well-being of others. If you truly care about your friends’, family’s, and colleagues’ success, you will motivate them naturally through inquisition and support.
Inspiring is something altogether different. To inspire you must have passion. Without passion, you cannot inspire.
Ask yourself right now, what am I passionate about? Then ask, how do I show that passion to others? And finally, does my passion help others? (Sometimes passion can be dangerous. After all, Hitler was passionate.)
If you need some examples of people with passion, who motivate and inspire, watch a couple of my favorite videos:
#5 Leaders Focus on Individuals, Not Groups
“Leaders don’t lead groups, they lead people,” Sam’s dad said. He explained that in any great organization, such as the Marine Corps, a leader is tasked with a group and its success. But, there is one problem, and that is that groups don’t follow leaders, individuals follow leaders.
To be an effective leader, stop thinking of yourself as being at the top of a group. Instead, think of yourself as someone who gets to build relationships with each individual person within your reach. It is individuals that will adopt and promote a vision, passion, and tactic. It is individuals with legs and mouths and hands and hearts that will follow, not groups.
#6 Leaders Have Charisma
I would have written this one down in my notes whether Sam’s dad told me or not. He had enough charisma to fill the room and I was ready to follow him wherever he led me.
He did make a point to let me know, however, that to be successful and to lead, I was going to need to have charisma. Charisma is the compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. Why is this important? Because no one wants to follow, let alone even build a friendship with a pessimistic, wet-blanket type of person. In order to build relationships and enjoy life, you must have charisma.
If you’re not sure right now how to be charismatic, the first steps are here:
- Be genuine
- Smile and make eye contact
- Ask questions and listen more than you speak
- Show others you care
- Be confident in yourself
Following these five basic steps is just the beginning, but inspiring and leading through charisma is both an inherent trait, and a learned one. If you don’t feel charismatic by nature, then you will need to spend more time focusing on this trait.
#7 Leaders Listen
During our first meeting, we talked about Sam and her relationship with her dad. Sam’s dad said something that I wrote down (bottom left corner of the image below), “Parenting isn’t telling, it’s asking good questions.”
Sam’s dad went on to tell me, “If I tell you, then you don’t have to think to respond. If I ask you, then you have to think. I want you to think and grow. I want you to learn for yourself and to understand the why…
“As parents, and leaders, we have to ask more questions and ask better questions.”
#8 Leaders Are Life-Long Learners
In order to intellectually stimulate others, one must always be learning new things.
Sam’s dad gave me the reading list you see on the paper below. Most are military history books, but that wasn’t the point. Sam’s dad wanted me thinking for myself, learning, and growing. His office was decorated with hundreds of books, and he, like my own father, said that he read nearly a book each week.
I have since become a voracious reader and obsessive learner. It drives me to improve each day.
List of Books:
- The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
- Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose
- Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Dan Carrison
- Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman
- Authentic Leadership, Bill George
- On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis
- 1776, David McCullough (See my blog post on 1776)
Some of the quotes in this post are not verbatim. Since this first meeting with Sam’s dad was so long ago, I had to recall some of this message and paraphrase. However, the messages he shared with me that day, and the many other days since then, are still clear, despite not having the exact words.
Sam’s dad and I still talk occasionally. We now live hundreds of miles apart, but to this day, I still consider him My Mentor.
The eight lessons here have guided me, and I hope they can help you too, whether you are a leader in a military organization, in business, in family, or simply leading yourself to a better, more fulfilling life.