How to be a December Leader

What would you say is the #1 leadership characteristic?  Not necessarily what will gain recognition from others, but what you should focus upon to achieve greatness? And in particular what would you focus on NOW – in the waning days of November?

For me, the answer is easy: Perseverance.  In January, I’d say: do the vision and goals. In December? Finish! Let me share my role model for this.  In one of the very first leadership classes of the semester, I asked a senior, Rob Paylor, if he would be willing to speak to the power of vision in his life. He said, “Sure,” with his irrepressible cheery smile.  And when he finished, I took the microphone back from him, and I acted out the expression that’s popular these days, as I said, “I might as well ‘drop the mic,’ because Rob has taught you more about vision and leadership than I will all semester.”

A year and a half before Rob was in my class, he was living his dream, starting for Cal in the NCCA tournament final rugby game. In a scrum, he was illegally held around the neck, while his powerful, balance-generating legs were taken from beneath him. His head hit the turf and he was immediately and completely paralyzed from the neck down. After surgery, the doctor said, “You’ll be lucky if you [regain enough feeling and control that you] can bring a piece of pizza to your mouth.”  Please consider what you have to complete this year, what seems impossible.  Then imagine my friend and model, Rob, confronted with this stark prediction.

Today, Rob has arm strength that approaches that of a rugby player. He has recovered muscle control that is extraordinary. Although he requires a wheel chair, he can walk with a walker, and with one other aid:  ferocious determination.

For weeks and months Rob would lie in bed.  For hours at a time he would MENTALLY focus on each muscle group in his body, methodically moving through them. He would tell his body:  Move my fingers. Move my hands. My wrists. Forearms. Biceps. Triceps. Chest. Glutes. You get it.  All the way down to his toes.

Understand:  many of these parts could NOT and did not move.  The brain-to-nerve-to-muscle connections had been obliterated.  But he did “reps” anyway, exerting his mind.  10 curls. 10 quads.  Parts slowly began to move (with neural re-purposing that I don’t understand). The most stunning movement came one day when a hamstring muscle he was working on with his mind . . . twitched. He saw it.  Or was he imagining it? It twitched again. He called the nurse: Look!  He called the doctor. Look!  He worked in the gym harder and longer than he ever had on the rugby field, propelled by the impossible idea that he would walk.  And he would.  “One step at a time” has never held meaning like this.

Rob Paylor on the field!

I wish I could take you with me to our classroom, ironically down beneath the stands of Memorial Stadium where the Cal Bears play.  I would introduce you to Rob. You might ask him, “how are you?” And he would look you in the eye, smile, and says, “Awesome.”

It takes perseverance to lead with your best self.


  • Thank you Dan and Rob for a truly awesome* start to the day, the week and to life.

    * as a boomer I am generally allergic to the word awesome but when it fits it really fits!

  • Rob is just a simply fantastic human being. The greatest compliment i could recieve was having him do the introduction for me. I was honored by that. Thanks for sharing Rob’s leadership, passion and spirit with everyone Dan. Perfect message for this week. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Rob is always in class with positive energy, a great sense of humor, and a smile. Although we haven’t gotten to know each other individually in class, his presence has help brighten up the class more than he knows. Thank you Rob for just being you. Thanks for sharing his story to inspire others Dan!

  • Powerful story – and one so perfectly suited for the holiday season. We are in so much greater control if we only just step up to it.
    Thank you for introducing your readers to Rob.

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