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How many of you are completely comfortable with calling yourselves a leader? See, I've asked that question all the way across the country, and everywhere I ask it, no matter where, there's always a huge portion of the audience that won't put up their hand. And I've come to realize that we have made leadership into something bigger than us. We've made into something beyond us. We've made it about changing the world. And we've taken this title of leader, and we treat it as if it's something that one day we're going to deserve, but to give it to ourselves right now means a level of arrogance or cockiness that we're not comfortable with. And I worry sometimes that we spend so much time celebrating amazing things that hardly anybody can do that we've convinced ourselves that those are the only things worth celebrating, and we start to devalue the things that we can do every day, and we start to take moments where we truly are a leader and we don't let ourselves take credit for it, and we don't let ourselves feel good about it. And I've been lucky enough over the last 10 years to work with some amazing people who have helped me redefine leadership in a way that I think has made me happier. And with my short time today, I just want to share with you the one story that is probably most responsible for that redefinition.
I went to school in a little school called Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and on my last day there, a girl came up to me and she said, "I remember the first time that I met you." And then she told me a story that had happened four years earlier. She said, "On the day before I started university, I was in the hotel room with my mom and my dad, and I was so scared and so convinced that I couldn't do this, that I wasn't ready for university, that I just burst into tears. And my mom and my dad were amazing. They were like, 'Look, we know you're scared, but let's just go tomorrow. Let's go to the first day, and if at any point you feel as if you can't do this, that's fine, just tell us, we will take you home. We love you no matter what.'"
And she says, "So I went the next day and I was standing in line getting ready for registration, and I looked around and I just knew I couldn't do it. I knew I wasn't ready. I knew I had to quit." And she says, "I made that decision, and as soon as I made it, there was this incredible feeling of peace that came over me. And I turned to my mom and my dad to tell them that we needed to go home, and just at that moment, you came out of the Student Union building wearing the stupidest hat I have ever seen in my life." (Laughter) "It was awesome. And you had a big sign promoting Shinerama, which is Students Fighting Cystic Fibrosis," — a charity I've worked with for years — "and you had a bucketful of lollipops. And you were walking along and you were handing the lollipops out to people in line and talking about Shinerama. And all of a sudden, you got to me, and you just stopped, and you stared. It was creepy." (Laughter) This girl right here knows exactly what I'm talking about. (Laughter) "And then you looked at the guy next to me, and you smiled, and you reached in your bucket, and you pulled out a lollipop, and you held it out to him, and you said, 'You need to give a lollipop to the beautiful woman standing next to you.'" And she said, "I have never seen anyone get more embarrassed faster in my life. He turned beet red, and he wouldn't even look at me. He just kind of held the lollipop out like this." (Laughter) "And I felt so bad for this dude that I took the lollipop, and as soon as I did, you got this incredibly severe look on your face and you looked at my mom and my dad, and you said, 'Look at that. Look at that. First day away from home, and already she's taking candy from a stranger?!'" (Laughter) And she said, "Everybody lost it. Twenty feet in every direction, everyone started to howl. And I know this is cheesy, and I don't know why I'm telling you this, but in that moment when everyone was laughing, I knew that I shouldn't quit. I knew that I was where I was supposed to be, and I knew that I was home, and I haven't spoken to you once in the four years since that day, but I heard that you were leaving, and I had to come up and tell you that you've been an incredibly important person in my life, and I'm going to miss you. Good luck."
And she walks away, and I'm flattened. And she gets about six feet away, she turns around and smiles, and goes, "You should probably know this, too. I'm still dating that guy four years later." (Laughter)
Here's the kicker. I don't remember that. I have no recollection of that moment, and I've searched my memory banks, because that is funny and I should remember doing it, and I don't remember it. And that was such an eye-opening, transformative moment for me to think that maybe the biggest impact I'd ever had on anyone's life, a moment that had a woman walk up to a stranger four years later and say, "You've been an incredibly important person in my life," was a moment that I didn't even remember.
How many of you guys have a lollipop moment, a moment where someone said something or did something that you feel fundamentally made your life better? All right. How many of you have told that person they did it? See, why not? We celebrate birthdays, where all you have to do is not die for 365 days — (Laughter) — and yet we let people who have made our lives better walk around without knowing it. And every single one of you, every single one of you has been the catalyst for a lollipop moment. You have made someone's life better by something that you said or that you did, and if you think you haven't, think about all the hands that didn't go back up when I asked that question. You're just one of the people who hasn't been told.
But it is so scary to think of ourselves as that powerful. It can be frightening to think that we can matter that much to other people, because as long as we make leadership something bigger than us, as long as we keep leadership something beyond us, as long as we make it about changing the world, we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it every day from ourselves and from each other.
Marianne Williamson said, "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, and not our darkness, that frightens us." And my call to action today is that we need to get over that. We need to get over our fear of how extraordinarily powerful we can be in each other's lives. We need to get over it so we can move beyond it, and our little brothers and our little sisters, and one day our kids -- or our kids right now -- can watch and start to value the impact we can have on each other's lives more than money and power and titles and influence. We need to redefine leadership as being about lollipop moments, how many of them we create, how many of them we acknowledge, how many of them we pay forward, and how many of them we say thank you for. Because we've made leadership about changing the world, and there is no world. There's only six billion understandings of it, and if you change one person's understanding of it, one person's understanding of what they're capable of, one person's understanding of how much people care about them, one person's understanding of how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you've changed the whole thing. And if we can understand leadership like that, I think if we can redefine leadership like that, I think we can change everything. And it's a simple idea, but I don't think it's a small one, and I want to thank you all so much for letting me share it with you today.
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We have all changed someone’s life -- usually without even realizing it. In this funny talk, Drew Dudley calls on all of us to celebrate leadership as the everyday act of improving each other’s lives. (Filmed at TEDxToronto.)
Drew Dudley believes leadership is not a characteristic reserved for the extraordinary. He works to help people discover the leader within themselves. Full bio »