He taught me so much. Not because of what he said, or even how close we were, but what he embodied.
Jerry Witherspoon died of pancreatic cancer a few weeks back. I’ve been mourning his passing quite a bit and — to be entirely real — I’ve been a little surprised by this. You see, I never went to his house, had dinner with his family, or even went on a walking meeting together. Whenever we met, we were in some larger group meeting, and he probably didn’t think about me afterwards. In most traditional ways of measuring it, he wasn’t a friend; He was more an acquaintance. In the last 10 years, after our shared meetings ended, I’ve probably shared a few hundred words with him here and there as we interacted as part of a larger community.
Yet, I can see his affect on my life, on nearly daily decisions. Not because of what he and I shared, but by how he lived his life. By how he asked questions, he taught me curiosity. By how he solved problems, he taught me creativity. By seeking a wide variety of counselors, he taught me to avoid surrounding myself with yes-people. By always including divergent points of view, he taught how to avoid sameness. By how he prioritized his family, he taught me what committed love looks like.
In one of our interactions, we talked about how people had different relationships to money. He was a financial advisor and he was drawing from a wealth of experiences. He talked to how any of us could cling to money, thinking of it as a precious commodity, and worrying whether there would be enough. Another end of the spectrum was to see money as one of many tools we have, and to see it through the lens of abundance. Jerry lived in the second camp – and his calm approach to money quieted my own monkey brain for that moment. The entire conversation probably lasted five minutes. During which, I asked him a specific question about charity and giving. His answer wasn’t aimed to convince me but to encourage me to try things. “Try it out what I’m suggesting for a little while, and you can always return to what you’re doing now and not much will be lost.” And it was because he was living the idea already, that I could see why I wanted to try it. And by his lowering the bar from “it will surely work” to “try new things”, it made the idea accessible.
As his family grieves and loved ones come together to celebrate his life in all its intimacies, I am thinking about ways to live a life like his.
What does all this have to do with leadership in the Social Era?
People are witnessing us all the time. There is no separation of interior life, and exterior life. No difference between the product and the branding of that product. No distance between us (the company), and them (the consumer). People can see you. The real you. All of you. (As I wrote for Fast Company a while back, even when we think we’re in private, it’s as if we’re living in a house with no curtains on it. People can just walk on by, and see us in our underwear. ) People see you.
The way you are visionary when you could be short-term focused. The way you encourage the best in others, vs demand things of others. The way you are open to hearing ideas from anyone, when you could just direct people to do what you want of them. Even the way you talk to yourself – people see it.
Also, as we embody, we become believable. Act by act, value is created. It is not that we tell a story after the fact. It is that the story becomes clear because we’ve lived it. In the small moves are parts of the big outcomes. In the accumulation of acts, something becomes so fully alive, so manifest that it is both believable and deeply interesting. That is why people will listen to you, buy from you, and follow you.