Choosing to bend your light

  • Published
  • By Col. John E. Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
In 1919 a team of researchers led by Sir Arthur Eddington conducted a famous experiment to measure the precise location of stars surrounding the sun during an eclipse. To the shock of scientists everywhere, Eddington's results confirmed a phenomenon that Albert Einstein had predicted 4 years earlier - that the light from stars would "bend" as it passed by the sun, thus shifting the position of the stars ever so slightly. To most, this was confirmation of the viability of Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity, which physicists previously believed to be impossible. Almost overnight, the realization that light could indeed be bent made Einstein a worldwide celebrity and changed the course of physics forever.

But what does the theory of relativity and bending of light have to do with leadership you ask? Quite simply, I believe it serves as a wonderful metaphor for one of the most important character virtues of all: humility.

Stepping out of the spotlight

Humility, in the words of Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, "is a non-defensive willingness to see the self accurately, including both strengths and limitations." Derived from the Latin word "humilis," which translates as low or lowly, a humble person is not interested in pressing toward self-importance any more than being insistent on seeing or presenting themselves as being better than they actually are. Instead, they are content finding their self-worth in their intrinsic value and in their connections with others. In other words, they are more interested in being true to themselves than in constantly focusing on themselves.

Sir William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote, to practice humility "does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all." I could not agree more, especially as humility relates to leadership.

Admittedly, achieving this freedom from thinking about self is no easy task. Especially given the fact that we live in a world where leaders are expected to continuously be in the spotlight. And as such, it's only natural that they pursue every opportunity to bend the light of people's focus and attention toward themselves. After all, if you're the boss it comes with the territory. You've earned this right. You've climbed the ladder and now it's time to savor the scene from the top of the organizational pyramid.

But it's different with Second-Mile leaders.

Second-Mile leaders choose to pursue the path less traveled. The path of humility where they willfully surrender their desires for recognition, comfort and control and instead, embrace every opportunity to meet the legitimate needs of those placed in their care. That is, they choose to act in ways that bends the light of attention away from themselves and intentionally directs it towards others. They are leaders who understand that if you don't become enslaved to the spotlight, you won't be as inclined to miss the applause.

But sadly, many continue to confuse humility with timidity, thinking that meekness is weakness. While in truth, nothing could be further from reality.

Changing the person at a time

Many people are familiar with one of the world's greatest examples of a leader who made it a point to bend his light toward others, Mahatma Gandhi. He was a man who engaged people high and low, equally comfortable in the spotlight of the world stage as he was in helping others in the darkest of back alleys. Someone you would have found dressed not in an Armani suit but rather wrapped in the sari of a commoner. An other-centered leader who was no more interested in attaining titles than he was in pursuing violence to achieve his objectives of liberating his beloved India from British colonial rule.
Today, that same humble, selfless spirit Gandhi's life so beautifully illustrated continues to inspire people to deviate from the norm in positive ways. One such person being Blake Mycoskie, a one-time television star who's been transformed from world traveler to Chief Shoe Giver for children across the planet. A second-mile leader whose own story reflects a commitment to taking positive action to help those unable to help themselves, and in the process, helping people across the globe walk a little taller than they ever have before. 

Blake Mycoskie is known by some as the guy who just barely lost the $1 million prize on the second season of the popular TV reality show, Amazing Race. Following his stint on the program, Mycoskie decided to take some time to travel to Argentina. One of the many stops he'd made on his globe-trotting competition. While in Argentina he met several women from the United States who were collecting discarded shoes and then taking them to villages to kids who didn't have any. They asked him if he'd like to join them and he took them up on their offer. Not realizing it would forever change his life. 

During his time in the villages of Argentina, Mycoskie discovered most children in developing countries grow up barefoot. Given walking is often the primary mode of transportation in these nations; children can walk for miles to get food, water, shelter and medical help. Whether their playing, doing chores or just getting around, these children are at risk of getting cuts and sores on unsafe roads and from contaminated soil. 

However, like Mycoskie, what many of us may not realize is that one of the leading causes of disease in developing countries is soil-transmitted parasites which penetrate the skin through open sores that, if left untreated, can cause a child to lose a limb to amputation. 

Moved by the immensity of the problem, he chose to pursue an elegant, yet simple solution--provide children shoes. 

Promoting others over self 

Inspired by the traditional utility shoe of Argentinean workers, the alpargata, Mycoskie realized he could update the look for the U.S. market and simultaneously provide shoes to those going without. Five months after his trip to South America he launched TOMS Shoes with $300,000 of his own money and a unique business approach: every time someone buys a pair of shoes, his company would donate a pair to a child in need. In 2007, TOMS gave away 10,000 pairs of shoes. By the end of 2009, his company plans to give over 300,000 pairs to children in need around the world. 

Blake Mycoskie is a guy who knows what it's like to win by losing. Although he lost the $1 million prize on the second season of the Amazing Race by only 4 minutes, he now realizes if he had won, he may not have been inspired to launch his hugely successful, philanthropic shoe company. Instead of being a game show winner and likely tabloid regular, he's instead a positive change agent who, because of his unique approach to giving, has become a highly admired and much desired worldwide celebrity. A man who is constantly being approached to plug products, share ideas or promote his story of success. 

However, despite his ever increasing popularity, the notably humble Mycoskie is known to take every opportunity to bend the light of celebrity away from himself and instead, cast it on those he's committed to serve. In fact, the only appointments, interviews and endorsements he accepts are those which promote the object of his cause. Those children across the globe who for the first time will receive what so many people on the planet take for granted...their own pair of shoes. 

To some reading this, the benefits of being a humble, other-centered leader such as Gandhi or Blake Mycoskie, people who takes every opportunity to bend the light of attention and admiration away from themselves and onto others, is still not readily apparent. And I'm not surprised. After all, our society loves to celebrate the self-promoting, sophisticated and articulate leader whose flamboyant approach and high stakes ventures promise to bring about results previously thought unachievable. Many people remain enamored by those whose zeal to expand the company's bottom line often has them placing a premium on self-interest instead of self sacrifice. Men and women whose egos compel them to do whatever it takes to achieve their agendas. 

However, as Second-Mile leaders show every day, there is indeed another way. One which research continues to validate can make a tremendously positive difference in the lives of those around you.

A paradoxical blend

In one of the most compelling organizational studies ever completed, researcher and author Jim Collins introduced the world to the paradoxical concept of "Level 5" leadership. After studying the performance of over 1,500 Fortune 500 companies over a period of 30 years, he found 11 matched pairs that met his stringent criteria to be considered a great company. In his bestseller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't, he notes that what was perhaps most surprising about those successful companies was the dominant characteristics of its leaders. Namely, they possessed not a blend of flamboyance or of especially keen intellect but of extreme personal humility and intense professional will. Of note, he adds that these Level 5 leaders were extraordinarily aggressive, but their humility enabled them to invest in the strengths of those placed in their care, yield their personal desires to the mission of the company, and give rather than grab credit.

When asked to define the Level 5 leader in a 2006 interview, Collins shared:

It came down to one essential definition. The central dimension for Level 5 is a leader who is ambitious first and foremost for the cause, for the company, for the work, not for himself or herself; and has an absolutely terrifying iron will to make good on that ambition. It is that combination, the fact that it's not about them, it's not first and foremost for them, it is for the company and its long-term interests, of which they are just a part. But it is not meekness; it is not weakness; it is not a wallflower type. It's the other side of the coin...No matter how painful, no matter how emotionally stressing the decision has to be, they have the will to do it.

In effect, Collins reveals that the most successful leaders he studied choose to selflessly reflect the best of themselves on those around them. And in doing so, they energized and inspired others to do the same so together, they could achieve remarkable things.

Final thoughts

Researchers confirm that to put humility into practice in our lives is to possess an accurate sense of one's abilities; to have an openness to new ideas and contradictory information; to appreciate the many different ways that people and things contribute to our world; as well as the ability to acknowledge one's mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations. In other words, to be humble is to be free of thinking about ourselves so we can focus our eyes on where it matters most: On others. 

As the social revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi, social entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, and researcher Jim Collins teach us, the most successful leaders in history choose not to absorb the light but rather, to bend it. They demonstrate through their actions that true satisfaction in life is achieved in those moments we deflect the desire to satisfy our own needs and instead, humbly embrace opportunities to serve others. For in choosing to serve others, to bend our light away from ourselves and instead direct it towards those placed in our care, we tap into a special reservoir of strength. A reservoir that equips those of us privileged to lead with the courage to set aside any desires to pursue self interest, self comfort or self-gratification and instead make the most of every opportunity to encourage, empower and ideally inspire others to achieve all they are capable of achieving. 

Einstein's now famous theory of relativity has proven once and for all that light will indeed bend when traveling near another object. However, as leaders, we don't have to rely on complex theories from mathematical physics to understand the significance of this phenomenon in our own world. We need but realize that every time we intentionally bend the light of attention, applause and approval away from ourselves and onto another we create conditions for them to not only bask in its glow, but more importantly, to stretch and grow. 

Not because you have to, but because you choose to. 

Simply because that's what Second-Mile leaders do.