I didn’t understand at the time how I ended up in charge of the radio project. People just started obeying what I said to do.
I was 15 years old. The National Junior Honor Society at Walker High School had an annual fundraiser with WARF radio in Jasper, Ala. For one Saturday of each year — some slow day when few other ads were sold anyway — we were allowed to sell as many ads as we could and then come to the station to perform them.
As far as I recall, the fundraiser had never been a big deal before. There was no planning that went into it. We were told one Friday morning that we could sell ads that day — during class time — and then write the ad copy. It seemed like a cool way to get out of classes for the day.
We met in a classroom underneath the school library. It was chaos at first. Naturally, most kids wanted to leave school and sell ads instead of staying behind to write ad copy. There were a few ads already sold which needed to be written, so I sat down with a few other people to start writing.
Nobody was in charge, but before I knew it, I was in charge. For years, I’ve pondered the lessons of that weekend — how it came to be that people followed me.
There were about six of us writing ad copy and organizing the ad sales as they came in. Those around the table started asking me how they should do certain things. I started answering. Soon, their questions were different. They were asking how I wanted such-and-such thing done. I had to move to the head of the table so everybody could talk to me.
As students would bring in new ad sales, they came to me and I distributed the information to the person who needed to write the ads. I noticed that the returning students just wanted to sit around and talk, so I devised a systematic way to split up the city and start sending them back out to sell more. Instead of talking, students would now get their assignments from me — about which companies to try to sell — and then they would return for more.
Within a couple of hours, this project which had absolutely no planning — and no teacher involvement — was running like a well-oiled machine. We sold far more ads than this project had ever sold before — by something like a factor of 10 — and we worked all day.
By the end of the day, we had sold so many ads that we were nowhere near finished. I instructed a few trusted and competent fellow students to meet me at my house that evening. We wrote ads for hours, but we finished.
By the time we showed up at the WARF studios Saturday morning, we had everything organized. We had hundreds of ads to read and we had shifts of students scheduled to come in for the rest of the day to read copy during the regular station breaks.
The guys at the radio station were shocked at how organized we were, but they were even more shocked by how many ads we had sold. They quickly realized that I was in charge, so they asked me what we were doing and gave me the instructions we needed along the way.
I stayed at the station all day. I worked very hard, but I was very happy. We were doing a project that seemed like a big deal to me at the time — it was my first time on the radio — and I basked in the glow of feeling that I was running the project.
I was in a zone of competence and benevolent dominance. It felt good. It felt natural. I loved being good at what I was doing. I loved the respect from the others. I loved the praise from the professionals at the station. It was the most fun that I knew how to have at 15.
I didn’t really understand at the time how I ended up being in charge of that project. I certainly didn’t plan it that way. Nobody consciously gave me control. So what happened?
I wasn’t the most popular kid in my class. I wasn’t the most charismatic. I wasn’t the most charming. I was known as a hard-charging guy who could get things done. I knew how to make things happen. When there were easy projects to do — building homecoming parade floats or something else routine — the popular and pretty people took charge. But on this project, people followed me. Why?
Put simply, people followed me because I knew what to do.
I have no interest in controlling other people. I have even less desire to force anyone to follow me. But if we’re thrown into a situation together and we need to get something done, both of us will be better off if I set the direction and give the orders.
I know how to get things done — and good things happen when people choose to follow me.
The same things were true for me in future jobs. I wasn’t always the popular one, but I was the one who people turned to when things needed to be done — and when people needed direction about how to do the work.
I’ve read a lot of books over the years about leadership. I’d like to feel that I’m a better leader. But I’ve come to understand that my desire to “be a better leader” had more to do with wanting to be one of those charming, charismatic people who others just naturally want to follow.
I now understand that I’ll probably never be the guy who people want to follow just because they like me or just because they’re drawn to me. I’ll always be the guy who people will follow — if they follow me at all — simply because they know it will help them reach their goals, too.
Is that leadership? I’m not sure. Maybe. All I’ve ever known in this regard is competence and confidence. When there’s work to be done — especially something unusual and interesting — something in me instinctively knows what to do and can confidently start explaining to others how to do it.
I feel as though there are two kinds of leaders. One kind is the popular and charming person who people simply like and want to be around. The other is a competent person who just knows how to get a team of people to achieve a goal.
When I think back to my early life, I saw a lot of the first type get leadership roles at school. When I’m honest with myself, I was envious of them, because I thought I deserved those positions. You see, I thought leadership was about getting things done. It took me a long time to realize that most such positions were just popularity contests and that nobody expected anything to be done.
I’m not interested in being that kind of person. I wouldn’t know how to be that type even if I wanted to.
All I know how to do is to organize people and make things happen — under the right circumstances. I might not be the popular charmer, but being the competent achiever has always been more fun for me anyway.
I don’t know whether I’m what the books would call a leader, but I almost always know what to do — for whatever that’s worth.