In my speaking engagements, I often use a memorable tactic to illustrate what I believe is the most important characteristic of leadership: taking action. While probing the audience for their personal definitions of leadership, I will reach into my pants pocket and pull out a fifty-dollar bill. I hold it up above my head for the entire room to see and ask, “Who wants fifty dollars?”
Promptly, I ask another audience member for his or her definition of leadership, and sometimes reward a solid answer with a Tootsie Pop. Then I repeat my original question: “Who wants fifty dollars?”
Typically, at this point, I’ll get a couple of raised hands and some lukewarm “I do”s, but I will continue to move forward with the discussion on the definition of leadership as I draw out one or two more thoughts on what it means.
“WHO WANTS FIFTY DOLLARS???” I holler.
Finally, at that moment, I make my point. My listeners understand that I’m looking for more than a tepid reply. I want someone to actually do something. I want an individual, a leader, to stand up, move toward me and take the fifty bucks. And more importantly, I want all of them to embrace the idea that you can’t hesitate or respond in a half-hearted manner when opportunity reveals itself. You must seize it.
I’ve been using this bit for years, and it always plays out the same way. I’m forced to ask at least three times, often four or five, “who wants fifty dollars?” before someone actually takes action.
On page 3 of my book, Risk: A Road Worth Traveling, I state that leadership is a verb that means taking action. Because this definition is on the first page of the first chapter of my book, you know that it is the heart of my approach to leadership. I’ve been teaching this critical principle for years. I even wrote in Risk, “if you only take one thing from this book, it will be a new definition for the word leadership.”
A true leader – someone who takes action not only in business, but also in his or her personal life, in the community, and in the world– makes things happen. A true practitioner of leadership leads by example, by doing, by getting his or her hands dirty. A true practitioner of leadership is a person who is willing to make mistakes and profit by those mistakes, a person who is willing to jump into the fray and come out of it a little bloodied if necessary. That’s leadership. And it’s a message that I will preach to my last breath because I believe it is the most critical element of success.
If you haven’t seen the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, I would recommend it, if only for you to see one particular scene within the context of the entire story. Based on the actual trials of Chris Gardner, a bright but homeless man caring for his young son while struggling to make a better life, the movie reveals how Gardner and his child slept on the subway or in a public restroom on nights when they couldn’t get into a homeless shelter. Gardner eventually becomes a successful stockbroker.
At one point in the movie, Gardner is admonishing his boy not to waste his time shooting a basketball “day and night” because based on Gardner’s personal athletic skills, his son won’t excel at basketball either. When Gardner, portrayed by actor Will Smith, realizes that he has just trampled on the dreams of his son, he delivers a powerful message to the youngster: “If you want something, go get it. Period.”
Make leadership a verb. Take action.
And start today.