I write this in remembrance of my friend John Hammell. He was my debate partner for two years in high school and combined brilliance with an extraordinary work ethic. Although he earned a bachelor’s and master’s in 4 years at Northwestern and
graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, he wasn’t a silk stocking guy. Instead, he worked in legal aid, mostly fighting for housing for the poor and for people of color in Chicago. Johnny, we hardly knew ye!
John was also kind and outrageously funny. One day when he and I were 16 or 17, we took my little sister Sheila who was only about 10, to our local swim club. Sheila was already a pretty good little springboard diver, and she showed John how she could do a forward flip, then a backward, and, of course, her smooth dive in a pike position.
For the past three weeks, I’d been gently encouraging her to climb up to the 3-meter diving board, and she had been really wanting to do it. When John heard about this ambition he was non-stop encouraging. He was boisterous. I was a little more gentle. And between the two of us we talked her into the climb up those 10 or so steps.
She edged her way to the end of the board . . . and froze. Knees literally knocking. Despite the 85-degree weather, she shivered and shifted back and forth, backed up, backed halfway down the stairs, then back up. She’d get to the edge of the board, lean and pull back. John was a Non-Stop Talking Machine. And he tried every trick in the book. He would say “I’m going to count backwards from 10, then you go.” He would offer to take her to McDonalds, pay her ten bucks. He would say “the worst thing that could happen is you’ll die.” He peppered her with things to lighten the mood or challenge or affirm her.
After what must have seemed like the most interminable time, I think it was literally fifteen minutes, she lifted her arms for the tenth time, bent from the waste for the third time, and finally fell those 10 feet, slicing into the water with hardly a splash. She bobbed up to John’s raucous applause and screams and with the biggest smile a human face can hold.
Leading always involves a leap. I wish John could come to my class to encourage people to jump into the conversation. Like Sheila, they want to. Yet, it’s really hard for many. I don’t make light of the genuine anxiety that many feel. And yet the actual danger is infinitely smaller than the perceived risk.
In leading, like in diving, THINKING about leaping in, or dipping your toe usually makes it worse. Because if you miss this chance, you’ll usually talk yourself out of the next, and the next. When people decide to jump in in September, or in their first months at a new job then, like Sheila, they climb back up and do it again. They create a little habit. They may even get up on the one-meter board, maybe even the 3-meter. But if they climb down off that board, if they sit at the edge and put their feet and legs in, they may never get all the way in.
So whether you’re at the beginning of your freshman semester, or you’ve been going to all-company meetings or sitting at city council meetings for years thinking you’d speak but backing off from the podium, call on the great John Hammell: laugh, offer to buy yourself a Bic Mac, count backwards from 10, tell your professor or manager ahead of time to call on you. Just jump in. Even a bellysmacker fades quickly enough :-).
Sometimes, you just gotta LEAP to lead with your best self.