Month: May 2017

Toward Tomorrow Together: Cultivating a Shared Vision

Political Scientist, John Schaar, said:

“The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

This message resonates with me personally and motivates me to think about what I picture my future looking like and to determine what I need to do to create that future.

A vision is a picture of what we want to create.  What is your vision for your future?  Do you have a picture in your mind of what your life will look like in 5 years?  10 years?  20 years?  Do you have a plan for how you can realize your vision for your future?  Without a vision, and without a plan for making the vision a reality, it seems to me we are simply rolling the dice; Leaving our future up to chance.  Granted, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” (from “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns), but in my experience, when unexpected obstacles knock us off our course, it is easier to get back on track if we have a vision that motivates and inspires us forward.

As a leader, I believe it is also my responsibility to lead my team in creating the future for our institution and the students we serve.  But first, we have to collectively agree on what that aspirational future should look like – we need a shared vision that creates a compelling picture of our future and that inspires each of us to commit to creating that future together.  I also believe that the key to our team’s success lies in our ability to craft a vision that is more than just a hollow statement, and certainly more than just my vision or our leadership teams’ vision.  We will only be successful if we are moving towards tomorrow together . . .  And only if the tomorrow we are moving towards together is a vision of the future that incorporates the shared hopes, dreams, and aspirations of our collective team and enables personal visions to grow and thrive.

“If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t
have to be pushed.
The vision pulls you.”.
~Steve Jobs

I agree with leadership author, A. Lorri Manasse who describes vision as “the force which molds meaning for the people of an organization.”  If that is true, then it is easy to see how important developing a shared vision is for any organization.  I have developed a five step action list for cultivating a shared vision that unites the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the entire team.

Step 1:  Connect with your team.  An article from the Harvard Business Review in January 2009 suggested that “the best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present.”  The first step in creating an effective shared vision that will pull your team forward is to be present with your team members.  You have to get to know the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the members of the team, and share your hopes, dreams, and aspirations with them.  If you don’t know what is important to them and they don’t understand what motivates you, how can you possibly create a picture of what an aspirational future for your team looks like?

Step 2:  Listen.  Most leaders that I know, don’t have a problem talking, but unfortunately, some have trouble understanding the importance and value of listening.  This step goes hand-in-hand with step one.  To truly connect with your team, you have to be present and engage with them, and the first step in doing that is to actively listen to them.  Give the your time and your attention and pay attention to what they are telling you.  Listening is the only way you will ever be able to really know their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

Step 3:  Ensure the vision reflects the teams’ aspirations.  The team that I am privileged to lead recently doubled in size due to a restructure at my institution.  Essentially, we created a new division that included the departments I was already leading and added several other departments.  I added several new leaders to my team and they asked me to share my vision for our team with them.  I am always happy to share my vision – I have a lot of hopes, dreams, and aspirations for our institution and a multitude of ideas for how we can support our students’ success.  But what I said to them when they asked me to share my vision was that we were going to create a shared vision for our new division.  My ideas will surely be a part of the vision, and I have a responsibility as the leader to ensure that our vision fits within and supports our College’s Vision and Mission, but our vision has to encompass more than just my ideas.  If we are going to work toward tomorrow together, we have to create a vision that reflects our collective hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the future.  It’s not about the “leader’s” vision, it is about the team’s vision.

“A vision is a clearly-articulated, results-oriented picture of a future you intend to
create. It is a dream with direction.”
~Jesse Stoner-Zemel

Step 4:  Create a vision that will be the driving force for ongoing and systematic practice and process development.  The vision should be the driving force for the development of practices and processes that are clearly-articulated and designed to get results that move you ever-closer towards the picture your vision has created for your future.  It is important that every team member be able to see how they fit – they must understand how their role within the team, the decisions they make, and the actions they take each day contribute towards achieving the shared vision.  Additionally, everyone on the team must be empowered and trusted to make decisions and to participate in the development of practices and processes.  The leader’s role then becomes supportive and enabling, rather than managing and controlling.

Step 5:  Secure commitment to the vision.  This last step is arguably the most important.  My mentor, Dr. Joseph Barwick, taught me that “power comes from one of two places: one, the authority of the position, which almost always results in abuse.  Two, power is granted from the people who want to go where the leader is leading.  When ‘two’ is present, the team goes way beyond job descriptions and corporate objectives.”  Leaders by virtue of the authority granted them by their position are responsible for directing the work of the teams they lead.  Good leaders and leaders who lead to make a difference, know that their greatest hope for success does not come from the authority of their position, but rather from their ability to secure commitment for a shared vision that motivates and inspires their teams to want to go towards tomorrow together.  When this occurs, teams are no longer just workers with a job to crank out . . . They are people with a difference to make.

Be Bold . . . Be Courageous . . . Leave the world better because YOU MADE A DIFFERENCE!

Authentically yours,


Making a Difference One “Starfish” at a Time

“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said,

It made a difference for that one.”

~ Loren Eiseley

I love this story.  It is a simple, yet beautiful illustration of how we all have the ability  to make a difference right where we are, and more importantly, it illustrates that every difference matters.  We don’t have to wait until we have something big to do or until our actions will impact a lot of people.  The small efforts that make a difference to one or a few, are just as important as grandiose efforts that affect larger numbers.  In fact, think of all of the opportunities to make a difference that my be lost forever if we don’t take action because we are waiting until what we do will have a larger impact.

Leaders like to make big differences.  We like to lead efforts that show significant, positive results and large returns on our investment.  Our performance is often measured by the overall size of our efforts and the number of positive results we measure.  I am not suggesting that we should limit our ambitions and set small goals or aim for smaller results; but I am suggesting that we should not let smaller opportunities to impact lives and make a positive difference pass us by while we wait for something bigger.  We have opportunities to make smaller differences every day and those small differences are important.

When I am asked to speak at an event, I am always thrilled to have the potential to inspire an audience of 50, 100, or more people at once.  I take those opportunities seriously and spend a great deal of time and hard work preparing my speeches and delivering the most inspirational message possible.  However, I am also blessed to be a “mentor” for several aspiring leaders.  I take that role just as seriously, and spend just as much time preparing to meet with my mentees as I do preparing a speech for 100 people.  The opportunity to make a difference in the life of one person is just as important to me as the opportunity to make a difference in the life of many.

Consider too the ripple effect:  Each person takes one small action that makes a difference to one person.  That person in turn, makes a difference for someone else; and so forth and so on until all of the small actions combined have created a ripple — a large and forceful wave of action.   Our individual contributions are like one drop of water in the ocean, but all of our “drops” combined together fill an ocean.

Anne Sullivan was the teacher and life-long companion of Helen Keller.  Anne was able to break through the isolation caused by Helen’s deafness and blindness to help her learn to communicate.  Anne’s motivation was to make a difference in Helen Keller’s life, and she did.  Helen then made huge differences in the lives of countless other deaf-blind people through her work as an author and activist.

Don’t wait to make a difference . . . Remember the Starfish.  

Seize every opportunity to make a positive difference by your actions or by your work, regardless of the number of people who may be impacted.  The one life you positively impact in some small way, is important; and the impact that you have in that one person’s life may be the beginning of a ripple effect that changes the world.

Be Bold . . .  Be Courageous . . .  Leave the world a better place because YOU Made a Difference!

Authentically yours,



Building a Legacy

Leadership author and motivational speaker Mark Sanborn shared a keynote speech in which he talked about the difference between creating your resume and building your legacy.  Sanborn suggested that to build our legacy, we have to change our focus in 5 key ways — we have to focus on:

  1. Building Relationships instead of earning results;
  2. Leaving an Impact instead of leaving impressions;
  3. Making Contributions instead of listing accomplishments;
  4. Helping others improve instead of self-improvement; and
  5. Making a Difference instead of making money.

Sanborn described our legacy in this personal and relational way:

This resonates strongly with me personally.  We all have a finite amount of time to write our life’s story on our journey through life, and when I die, I sincerely hope and pray that my legacy will not be tied to any physical object or structure that I leave behind, or found in the words of one of my blogs or presentations.  The desire of my heart is that my legacy will refect a life well-lived if it is revealed by the lives of people who I have been privileged to touch in some way.  People that I was honored to be on this life’s journey with and honored to know, to learn from, to believe in, to encourage, to inspire, to motivate, to lead, to serve, or to help in some way.  In other words, I want my legacy to be defined by the differences I made in the lives of others along my life’s journey.

“The value of a well-lived life is found in the relationships that are built along the way.  We make a difference when we sincerely desire to get to know people and to touch their lives in a positive, affirming, and helpful way.  Lives are not changed at a distance — they are changed when we connect personally, intentionally, and genuinely with people.” ~Janet N. Spriggs

I love the definition of a great leader as someone who does not set out to lead, but rather who sets out to Make a Difference — to be a Difference Maker.  David Sturt of the OC Tanner Institute said that “Great Difference Makers shift from seeing themselves as workers with an assignment to crank out, to seeing themselves as people with a difference to make.” 

Regardless of whether or not we have a title or a position that specifically puts us in a leadership role, we all have opportunities to choose to be leaders.  When we find ourselves faced with those leadership opportunities, we can choose a leadership path or a leadership path that is focused on Leading to Make a Difference.   I am not suggesting that either of these two choices is a wrong choice — no matter which path we choose, we can be successful.  For me, the underlying factor in which decision to make lies in Sanborn’s theory about whether our goal is to create a resume, or to build a legacy, and I believe that is everyone’s individual and personal choice to make.    For me personally, I would add another question to help me make the choice:  How many people can I positively and personally impact if I make my focus about the difference I can possibly make in others’ lives?  

Last week, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at my college’s 2017 Student Leadership Banquet, and much of the content of this blog is borne from that keynote.  I took this assignment very seriously for several reasons:  first, in all honesty and in the interest of always trying to be both vulnerable and transparent, I confesss that I did not want to embarrass myself or “look bad” in front of my boss, (the College President), my colleagues (the President’s leadership team and other staff and faculty), my division’s team members who look to me for leadership and direction everyday, or most importantly our students.  I wanted all of those constituent groups to leave the event without losing faith in me as an educator and leader, and I especially did not want to let our students down.  Anyone who works in education knows that the “students” are our life — they are why we do what we do — the people we spend our lives serving and supporting.  It was very important to me to share a message that inspired, but one that also connected with our students personally, right where they are, and that hopefully left them motivated to start building their legacy.

As I reflected on the way to do a good job for all of those reasons, I realized that I was focused on the wrong things and I was letting selfish fear influence the way I crafted my speech.  My focus was about how this keynote was going to affect “me”, and if I wanted to do the best job that I could do for our students, I had to listen to the message that I was sharing with the students and shift my focus away from what I had to gain or lose.  I had already mapped out my content — I had a personal example from one of our students as well as two other examples from the higher education arena to illustrate the difference between focusing on leading for personal achievement versus leading to make a difference.  Also, I had already developed my final three concluding audience “takeaways” to encourage and inspire our students to:  Live Your Life as a Difference Maker.

I realized that what I really needed to do to make a difference to the students and guests who heard my keynote that evening was to “practice what I was about to preach“.  So I took my own advice and delivered a keynote that was crafted to make a difference for others instead of focused on making myself look good (or at the very least, keeping myself from looking bad).  And I did that by using my three audience “takeaways” as my guiding principles:

  1. Be Bold.  I had to stop letting the self-conscious voice that sometimes gets in my head trying to make me doubt myself, get in the way of my opportunity to share a message that had the ability to make a difference in someone’s life — even if it was only a small opportunity or only one person that may be touched in some small way.
  2. Be Courageous.  Sometimes to make a difference, we have to face our fears or even take a risk that is unpopular, or in some cases dangerous.  I had to face my fear of speaking boldly, vulnerably, and authentically to my peers, and in the end, I realized there was no reason to fear being genuine with them anyway.  Sometimes the way we allow fear to grow in our imaginations is far worse than the reality of what the actual moment will be like.
  3. Build a Legacy that leaves the world better because of the Difference You Made!  My final takeaway for the students and others in the audience that evening spoke the loudest to me personally.  I will add this keynote to my list of accomplishments that are listed on my resume (yes, we all still need a resume).  However, I also realized that I had an opportunity that evening to do something more than just add another check mark to my resume — I also had the opportunity to make a contribution In the lives of many students.  I had 20 minutes to find a way to personally connect with around 50 people, and how great would it be, if within that timeframe, something that I shared or the way that I shared it, resonated with just one of them and made a difference in the way they approached their next opportunity to choose a path of leading or leading to make a difference.

Right now, today, and everyday . . . We are all writing our story . . . The story of our life’s journey.  We are the authors of our story and the authors of our resume.  But we are also the builders of our legacies.

Be Bold . . . Be Courageous . . . Build a legacy that leaves the world better because YOU MADE A DIFFERENCE!

Authentically yours,


(Adapted from Keynote at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College 2017 Student Leaderhsip Banquet:  Going Beyond Leadership:  Being a Differene Maker, May 1, 2017.)