Leap to Lead

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

John Hammell

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.
  • Great article this week Dan. Just imagine the wonderful opportunities the world has missed because someone would not “backed off” and then never attempted to step forward…..

  • Your article reminded me of a favorite William Sloane Coffin Quote; “It is terribly important to realize that the leap of faith is not so much a leap of thought as of action. For while in many matters it is first we must see then we will act; in matters of faith it is first we must do then we will know, first we will be and then we will see. One must, in short, dare to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty.”

  • Excellent insights, Dan. Having the self-confidence to take that leap is vital. Also, the support by others that helps us gain the confidence to take the leap can make the difference. You and your friend provided that support and encouragement, but Sheila had to feel confident that she could do it! Thank you.

  • John was really special. Incredibly articulate and to the point. He was a very good student of any situation. He would listen and learn. His default was kindness and humor. I wish he was available to talk to today.

  • Jackie, YOU are someone who has talked hundreds of young people to the edge of that diving board, with a quiet confidence that they could jump!

  • Dan,

    Thanks for this great story about John. It was one I had not heard before, and it provides another insight into his remarkable character. He was indeed someone who courageously and boldly blazed new paths despite the challenges and sometimes distressing appearance of the way forward. He was never deterred. As Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, said, “It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”

    Also wonderful to hear about the good work you are doing at U.C. Berkley! Keep it upI

    Joe Hammell (John’s younger brother)

  • One year John took a leap and auditioned for our high school musical… I was playing piano for the singing part of the audition, thankfully for many conducted individually in private sessions. John walked in and blew the directors away, like hearing Jim Neighbors break from his Gomer Pyle character into those incredible opera-level vocals. They asked him if he’d taken lessons, etc. John said, “No, I just like to sing along with the radio.” Natural talent and humility, a rare combination.

    • Bayard, thanks for sharing this memory. I was envious of John’s ability to so freely step upon the stage. I sat in the audience and thought, “I could do that,” but I never had the challenge to try. John was pretty fearless!

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