Category: Leadership

5 Do’s & Don’ts for Dealing with Conflict in the Workplace

The past few weeks have been busy and even hectic at times.  I had a lot of travel, especially week before last, including a week-long trip to the west coast, so getting ready for that added a bit of “crazy” to my already crazy schedule.

There’s just a lot going on right now for me and sometimes, when my schedule gets like this, it seems like there is always a conflict or two to deal with, on top of the busyness.  This week was no exception.  I spent at least the equivalent of an entire day either addressing a conflict or dealing with the aftermath of conflicts that had not been handled well.  So, I’ve had a lot of time this week to reflect on conflicts in the workplace and unfortunately, I had to spend some of that time working on remedies to create positive outcomes for conflict that was mishandled.

Conflict in the workplace is actually common.  When you think about it, we spend a great deal of time at work and in professional, working relationships with a lot of people from a lot of diverse backgrounds.  Any time groups of people spend a lot of time together, the possibility for conflict exists.  Family reunions, social gatherings, or competitive events are great examples — especially when creativity and strong emotions, like passion for a common purpose are present.

I believe the most effective and highly productive teams are made up of innovative and creative people who each bring different strengths and experiences to the team’s collaboration, and who are often very passionate about the work they do.  These kinds of team dynamics can produce amazing results, but at the same time, they may also breed conflict.  As leaders, we have to understand two things:

  • Conflict in and of itself is not “bad”; and
  • How we deal or don’t deal, with conflict can make or break a team.

I say that conflict is not bad in and of itself because often the reason for the conflict is an important issue that needs to be addressed and many times dealing with the underlying root cause of the conflict can help teams correct critical problems and create a better strategy, result, or product.  The conflict then is not bad, IF it is dealt with and the process for resolution is handled appropriately.  When we ignore problems or conflicts, they fester, and without attention, they often destroy teams, hinder success and harm the organization systemically

I have spent more than two decades leading a variety of teams.  In that time, I have dealt with too many problems, issues, and conflicts among various teams to even name.  I have also developed a list of Do’s and Don’ts that I want to share in hopes that they will help new or seasoned leaders.  Even after studying leadership theory endlessly and with more than 25 years of practical leadership experience under my belt, I still make a mess of conflict sometimes.  Seasoned leaders need reminders of good practices and new ideas on dealing with common situations too.

Here then are the Leading to Make a Difference Do’s & Don’ts for Addressing Conflict in the Workplace, in hopes that they may help leaders reading this blog, or even just help one leader, deal with conflict in the workplace.

 Do’s & Don’ts for Addressing Conflict in the Workplace:

  • Don’t let problems fester (this one can nip conflict in the bud!).
    • DO address problems and situations quickly and directly.

  • Don’t make snap judgments or take “sides.”
    • DO explore all the facts and listen to the “sides” and make informed decisions.

  • Don’t let the conversation go in any direction and keep it constructive by not allowing the use of inflammatory words, language, or physical pretense.
    • DO set boundaries that include mutual respect from everyone and to everyone, and actively listen to the constructive dialogue of all involved parties.

  • Don’t think one conversation, or that just talking it out, will “fix” everything.
    • DO develop a resolution and plan that establishes accountability for the involved parties and stick to the plan!

  • Don’t have performance management conversations with team members who have behaved badly in front of other team members.
    • DO address bad or incorrect behaviors with team members who have behaved inappropriately in private.

Dealing with conflict within a team or within the workplace is one of the hardest things that any leader will ever have to do.  Not dealing with problems, or letting issues and workplace conflicts fester and grow, may be the worst thing any leader could ever do.  Leaders who lead to make a difference understand the importance of handling conflict in the workplace before it does irreparable damage to the team and/or the organization.

Lead Boldly;

Lead Courageously;

Lead to Make a Difference!

Authentically yours,




Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors

A couple of weeks ago, my executive leadership team and I spent all day together at a strategic planning session.  Our goal was to assess our team’s work and achievements over the past year and start to develop our strategic goals and objectives to set our course for the future.  As we talked about all the things we had accomplished over the past year, we were excited!  It was clear that we have a team of hard workers who are passionate about what they do and eager to make a difference in the lives of our students.

Over the past 1 ¾ years, we have made significant changes in the way we think about how we serve students and in the way, we approach supporting our students’ success.  As a result, our student success team has been in a constant state of transformation.  That’s a cool word for change, and unfortunately, change can be scary.

I am privileged to work with a group of outstanding leaders — our leadership team, we call it the Guiding Team – is committed to doing whatever it takes to create student success services that move us ever closer to our shared vision of:

Meeting students where they are;
Empowering them to see what their future can be; and
Helping them achieve their goals for a better tomorrow.

I strongly believe that fearing change is the enemy of success, but I also know that apprehension about the unknown is normal and natural.  Leading through change — creating true and lasting transformation — requires change agents — and all leaders are not change agents.  Being a change agent is difficult; many leaders can stay the course when the journey is along a familiar path, but those same good leaders find it challenging or even impossible to successfully navigate the way when the route is unknown or littered with obstacles.

When I met with my guiding team for our planning session, I gave them each a gift — a photo that I had taken of a beautiful afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Burnsville, NC.  The photo was captioned with this well-known leadership quote:

“If your actions inspire other to dream more,
learn more, do more, and become more,
you are a Leader.”
~John Quincy Adams

I wanted to thank them for the work they have already done in leading our division.  I also wanted to inspire them to keep moving forward, because we know that we are not done — in fact, we discussed how we will never ever be done.  If there are students to serve, we are a leadership team committed to transformation.  We don’t want to be in a constant state of change just for the sake of change, but we recognize that change is a constant of life.  If you are moving forward, you are changing; if you are not changing, you are falling behind.

We cannot afford to fall behind because we have students to serve.  We share a passion for harnessing the power of education to change lives by helping our students navigate their way forward to a better future.  We also share a belief that old ways won’t open new doors.  In today’s higher education landscape, that belief is the impetus behind our steadfast journey of transformation.  Everything in the 21st century world of community college education is changing; expectations for higher education are not the same today as they were even 5 or 10 years ago.  The old ways of delivering instruction and providing instructional support for students won’t open new doors of opportunity and possibility today.

We cannot merely “build it and they will come,” and our mission is much more than merely a focus on providing access to higher education for populations of students who may not otherwise have a postsecondary option.  We must reach out proactively to engage with our students in meaningful ways.  We must build relationships with them that help them not only understand how to access educational opportunity, but also how to be successful in their programs of study.  Additionally, today’s public sentiment of accountability is pushing us to do more than just help them succeed in their coursework; we are increasingly being pushed to ensure we are graduating students who will be successfully employed in jobs with sustainable, livable wages.

So, we don’t have time to fear change; change is coming whether we are ready for it or not.  As leaders who must assume the role of change agents, we must accept responsibility for steering our teams through innovative, data-informed transformation.  I have faith in my guiding team, their senior leadership teams, and all our team members — I know they are up for this challenge.  I also know that we will continue to face obstacles that will threaten to derail our change efforts.

As the division’s leader, it is my responsibility to lead us around, over, under, or through each and every barrier; to keep us moving forward as we build new ways to open new doors that advance access, success, and post-completion employment.  To that end, I have developed four guiding principles for leading transformational change.

Number One:  Be Intentionally Prepared.  Good leadership doesn’t just happen.  Anyone can be charged with leading, but not everyone is a good leader.  While I believe many great leaders possess natural talents and characteristics that help them be better leaders, I also believe that transformational leaders understand that they are not born with all-encompassing knowledge and their gut instincts and natural intuition is not always enough.  When it comes to transformational leadership, you cannot just “wing it.”  Successful leaders spend time studying and learning how to lead.  They study leadership theory; they read case studies to learn what has worked and what has not worked in other similar situations; they stay current in their respective fields; they intentionally prepare themselves to create transformation.

Number Two:  Be an Active Listener.  Just having the title Leader, doesn’t mean you know everything (also, many people who don’t have the title are the best leaders — but that is a topic for another blog and another day).  Great leaders and leaders who successfully lead transformational, lasting, and systemic change, understand the importance of listening to their team members, and more importantly, they know how to actively listen.  Active listening means you don’t just hear what someone is telling you, but rather you fully concentrate on who you are listening to and on understanding what they are saying.  Active listeners focus on building trust, demonstrating genuine concern for what they are hearing, and affirming that they understand.  This can be tricky for leaders.  Actively listening does not mean you should agree or act on everything that you hear; it does mean that you have a responsibility to your listener to take time to understand and to offer them honest feedback about what you can or will do with what they are telling you.  That leads us to the next principle . . . Be transparent.

Number Three:  Be Transparent.  I believe that being transparent is one of the most important characteristics for any leader because trust is a critical component of any relationship.  I believe that great leaders understand that they will never build trust if they are not willing to be transparent with those they are charged with leading.  I know that leaders cannot openly share everything — personnel matters are obviously private and any organization has confidential matters that cannot be openly shared.  However, in my opinion, top-down leadership structures all too often use a need for “confidentiality” as a cop-out, and a means for not directly and honestly, facing a difficult issue head-on.  As a change agent leader, you must be direct.  If, after actively listening to a team member’s idea, you know, for whatever reason, that you will not be able to do what they have proposed, tell them.  Don’t lead them to believe you will consider it if you won’t and don’t stay silent.  Be transparent — tell them the truth — and tell them why.

Number Four:  Be Willing to Take Risks.  The final guiding principle for leading transformational change is to be willing to take risks.  Transformational leaders are rarely risk-adverse.  They understand that the “safe” path is not always the path that will lead to innovation and transformation.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that you throw all caution to the wind by acting careless or foolish.  What I am suggesting, is that change agents understand how to weigh the benefits and the risks, and take reasoned risks if the results to be achieved will substantially move the needle towards necessary change.  As we continue to transform our student success services, we will take data-informed risks as warranted to improve student success — our ability to make a positive difference for our students’ futures is worth the right risk.

It is hard to step out of our comfort zone; it’s much easier to maintain the status quo by doing what we know and what makes us comfortable.  But, if we stay in our comfort zone and keep doing what we have always done, we miss great opportunities for new experiences and new possibilities.

Transformational leaders are never content with the status quo — instead they are constantly striving to inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.  They encourage us to take paths that we had never imagined and they challenge us to open ourselves up to whole new worlds of possibilities.

Transformational leaders are bold; they are courageous; and they lead to make a difference.

After all, they understand the importance of opening new doors to new possibilities and they know that . . . Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors.

Authentically yours,


Take the First Step: Your Destiny Awaits

Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Yesterday was an important day in my life and the culmination of a life-long dream and a life-changing journey that certainly felt like it took a thousand miles.  Yesterday, I earned my Doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Northeastern University.

My journey began in Fall 2014 with a single step.  I confess that, at my age, (I was 52 years old when I took that step), walking into that first class in Charlotte at our weekend intensive was more than a little scary.  I worried about being “too old”. . . I worried I wasn’t “smart enough” . . . I worried I would not be able to keep the pace of the combination of a full-time job and a two-class per term doctoral program . . . I “worried” about a lot of things, but I took the step anyway.

Last night, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my accomplishment and thinking about my journey, which along the way felt as if it would never end, yet now feels like it began just yesterday.  As I reflected on the past 3 ½ years, I couldn’t help but think about the students from my thesis — the eight incredible men and women with eight incredible stories who took the time to share their experiences with me.  My study explored persistence among successful low-income community college students in North Carolina.  The ultimate goal of my research was connected to my life’s passion for sharing the power of education to change lives.  I aimed to understand the experiences of low-income community college students, in hopes that their experiences could inform how community college practitioners, like me, might be able to build better support systems to help our students overcome obstacles to successfully complete their educational journeys.

My students faced so many barriers and challenges.  Almost all of them had to work, often full-time, while attending school and they had children and husbands or wives, or sometimes even fathers or mothers to take care of while they worked and attended school.  Three of the students faced serious health issues and three of them were finishing school while their fathers or mothers were dealing with terminal illnesses.  Additionally, the students were all low-income students, so going to college presented a financial challenge as well.  Yet, every one of these amazing men and women persevered.  They set a goal; they developed a plan; they took that first step . . . And they kept going until they had traversed those thousand miles and completed their goal.

Yes, every one of those students had help along the way.  They had a supportive family, peers, and college faculty and staff.  They received financial aid to help them pay for tuition and books.  But the most remarkable finding from my study was that, what they had more than anything else, was self-motivation and self-determination.  It began with a dream to create a better life for themselves and their families, and their inherent motivation and determination to follow their dream was a dominant factor of their success.  Just like me, the students in my study had a dream, and they found a way to achieve their dream.  Most of them didn’t start out with a plan in place — but they quickly developed a plan, either through their own initiative or with the help of their support system.  In the end, every one of those students overcame substantial barriers and quite honestly, beat the odds, to reach their destination and walk across the stage at our college’s graduation ceremony.  And it all began with that single step.

My students are important to me.  Not only because they helped me achieve my life-long dream, but because we are kindred spirits, since a long time ago, I was one of them.  I was that low-income student who had a dream but also had a lot of obstacles standing between me and that dream.  I know how hard it is when it seems like the deck is stacked against you, but just like my students, and thanks to so many people along the way who offered their support and guidance, I too found a way to overcome the barriers and realize my dream.  And it all began with that single step.

As I reflected on my journey last night, I was filled with a mix of emotions, and I was definitely proud of my accomplishment.  I thought back to all those years ago when I was just that poor, little girl, growing up on a tobacco farm in rural North Carolina.  I was so very happy as a little girl — blessed to have a big family filled with lots of people who loved me unconditionally.  I was blessed and I was happy, but I always felt like there was a destiny waiting for me that looked different somehow than what I could see just then.  Not necessarily, a destiny of greatness, but something different than I could imagine with my frame of reference at the time.

So here’s the moral of this story, in the words of William Jennings Bryan:  “Destiny is no matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.  It is not to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”  My students could have accepted their lot in life, or they could have waited around for “success” to find them; or they could have just complained about their circumstances. But they didn’t.

I could have kept dreaming about that doctorate.  But I didn’t.  My students and I took that first step.  We made a plan.  We recognized that our dream would not come to fruition by chance — we had to make a choice and pursue our goals instead of waiting for chance to find us.

I am so incredibly proud of the students from my study.  Their journey to completion was not easy, but they all told me it was worth it.  Achieving your destiny is always worth it.

If you have been waiting for something before taking that first step . . . My advice is to just go ahead and take the first step.  The journey cannot begin until you do and your destiny awaits.

Authentically yours,


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.)