I was twelve years old when I learned the definition of a leader.
I started training with my high school track coach in the sixth grade—training being a loosely-defined term. I ran with three fourth graders and two other girls my age on every conceivable surface imaginable—minus a track. Or a sidewalk. Or anything indoors. The one conventional facility we eventually familiarized ourselves with was the weight room (which is slightly ironic, considering the younger ones had a mere thirty-pound gain over the bar).
My coach taught me a lot of lessons over a decade of competitive running. It was during that first year when I learned the first.
Our coach challenged the six of us to accomplish two things: One, run a seven-minute mile; two, define a true leader. He gave us the next nine months to find the answer.
That year was my first taste of being beaten to the ground. It was nothing compared to the practices he put me through in high school, yet it was the most grueling experience my eleven-year-old body had endured. The Tough Mudder competition has nothing on what the six of us went through—streams past our waist, muddy ditches we climbed on hands and knees, snow three feet deep, and a number of other conditions that most certainly would have landed in a lawsuit had we lived anywhere other than our rural area.
Each Sunday, I swore if I made it out of that run alive, I would never, ever run again. I broke that promise every week. Sundays became the worst, best day of my week and running became the first thing I hated, yet could not live without. I will never be able to forgive, nor thank my coach enough for making me fall in love with the sport.
After nine months of training, we hit our marks on the track, but failed miserably on the written portion of the test. After giving long, drawn-out answers on our definitions of leadership, our coach told us the answer was a single word:
We followed our coach through rivers, ice, snow, and steep rocks because we trusted him. We trusted him when he said the water wasn’t that deep (even though he was straight-up lying, and I almost drowned a half dozen times because of it). We trusted him when he swore we wouldn’t get frostbite (although our legs were turning blue). We even trusted him when he assured us the weeds surrounding us were not poison ivy (take a wild guess on how that turned out).
In the years to come, when that same coach told us we would bring home championships, break state records, and become one of the most decorated high school programs in the history of our state, we believed him. I followed my coach’s direction blindly—even when I hated him—because I trusted he had my best interest at heart.
I’ve had the great fortune of working with some amazing, brilliant individuals over the course of my career, but I credit two people in particular with the progress I’ve made. On a scale of one to I’ll follow you to the ends of the Earth, they rank parallel with my high school coach. One was my first boss out of college. If you need any inclination on the upmost respect I hold for the man, you should read this post. He is one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever known, and to this day I still consider him my mentor.
The other was the Vice President of Sales during my college internship. To say I was petrified of the man would be a complete understatement. He expected premium work in unrealistic timeframes, and I will forever be grateful for it.
In the heart of my senior season, my VP asked me to restructure the company’s Salesforce.com account. Not wanting to disappoint my boss, I did something I had never done before, and have never done since—I asked to be excused from track practice. Twice.
I worked forty hours within a forty-eight hour period to finish the project. At 5AM the morning of my deadline, I was just crawling into bed when my supervisor texted me, Hey, I’m up and I’m heading to the office to work. I shot back, Don’t, it’s finished. I’m coming in late today. And BTW, I ate all the Chexmex in the office.
Those three people—my first two bosses, and my high school track coach—pushed me harder than anyone I have ever known. They pushed me harder than my parents. They obliterated what I perceived to be maximum output and taught me to extend my true limits. They were able to draw every last bit of effort from me, because I put my full faith in each one of them. Each time they hit me with an unfathomable goal, all I say was, “Well, if you think I can do it…”
I once saw a coworker reading an article titled How to be a leader, and it took everything in me to stay silent. All the management classes on Udemy or Lydia.com can never teach what it takes to be a leader. One cannot purposely propel themselves into a leadership role, because to do so would be for personal gain. By definition, in order to lead there must be people to follow. And you will only follow someone if you have faith in where they’re headed.
In other words, you will never follow someone who you do not trust.
People say it’s easy to sell something when you believe in the product. I say it’s easy to follow a mission, task, or purpose when you believe in the people. I’ve been incredibly blessed to follow some amazing leaders in my life, and I’m so grateful for where they’ve taken me.