Tag: leading

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,


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.)