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Leadership Lessons—Hand Out or Hand Up?

Had a chance in my travels to “go home” last week. Back in the Midwest. Took some personal time to play golf with my son and conduct business in the Chicago area.

I had the pleasure of spending an entire morning with one of our long-time vendors. In a previous life I was partners in a business in the same small town where this vendor is located.

I knew this owner of this business, Brian, was from this small town. Brian is not what you’d call a big fish in a small pond. He is a whale in this community—to the point of serving in the legislature … although he hates politicians! (Don’t we all for the most part?) He owns 15 different companies now and fights for small business with all the people in the government who have no idea what it is like looking at the checkbook on a Thursday night trying to figure out how you’re going to pay everyone in a few hours.

As we wrapped up lunch, Brian recognized one of his young employees having lunch with her mother. I found out later that he quietly found their waitress and paid for their lunch. I knew at that point he was an expert on leadership! When we got back to his office our conversation drifted towards leadership.

I asked Brian what drove him to success. I learned he grew up in the projects and was actually in the lowest percentile of his class. He said that “he always needed a hand up … not a hand out.” Once he found out what he could accomplish because of a hand up he began a life of continually challenging himself to do more.

Profound! I could related to that and imagine many of you can as well. We didn’t need handouts, we needed opportunities. As I drove home I thought about all of the people who gave me a hand up. Time after time there was someone willing to give me a hand up. Most of the time it was an employer who took a chance on me. Earlier in life it was teachers.

Brian’s perspective on this form of leadership reminded me of a movie that came out 15 years ago, Pay it Forward with Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and invest $10 to get the DVD on Amazon.

The premise of Pay it Forward is giving someone a hand up. Haley Joel Osment, as a young student, would try and help someone and then challenge that person to do the same thing with three people. Suddenly there were people all over the world helping others because someone helped them—wanting and expecting nothing in return.

I am in no way saying that there aren’t people who need a hand out. Many of us face difficult challenges at some point. I am saying, however, that we all need to focus on seeking and giving a hand up. We all have amazing contributions to make, and sometimes we just need a chance to share them.

Think back on your life. Who gave you a hand up? Better yet, how many people gave you a hand up? What have you been able to accomplish because of these gifts?

Look at your own life today and your many communities: Work, home, children, other family members, church, etc. Who can you affect by giving someone a hand up? What difference can you make in their life because you did this?

In the next week remember those folks who gave you a hand up and send them a note of thanks. I bet you most of them will not even realize they did this—it was just their style.

Then, pay it forward.

Have a great week.

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