One of the great ironies of life is that the best training for leadership comes by learning to serve others. It often seems like aspiring leaders need to know how to do things like direct others, manage others, and coach others. But the true sustaining foundation of great leadership begins with learning the lessons that come only when we serve others.
I’ve been fortunate to witness this reality play out in some incredible ways over the last five years during annual trips to Tijuana, Mexico, with Colorado Uplift. I’ve written about this Denver-based non-profit before. It provides mentoring and leadership training for inner-city kids. And each year, Uplift takes about 100 people to Tijuana, breaks them into four groups, and each group helps build a home for a family in need – in two days!
About 50 or 60 of the participants are inner-city kids who each raise $500 to help pay for the trip. The rest are staff, board members (like me), and their friends and family. We all pay a higher fee to help supplement the costs for the inner-city students, then we all work side-by-side for the weekend.
When I return each year, I can count on two things: One, I’ll be physically exhausted from the manual labor. And, two, I will glow with appreciation for the value this trip provides. It brings obvious value to the people of Tijuana – to the community in general and most specifically to the families who move from a shanty home literally made of cardboard into one made of concrete and wood. And it brings value to those of us on the trip, because serving others transforms our hearts and teaches what it really means to lead as servant leaders.
Let me give you two powerful examples.
First, there are the inner-city students. Many of these kids believe they are victimized, that they are the poorest of the poor, and that they have no hope. It’s been engrained in them almost from birth. Most come from highly dysfunctional families and are the products of generational poverty.
On this weekend, however, they build a home for somebody who’s even poorer than they are. It’s amazing to see how this shifts their mindsets. They begin to realize they have something of value to offer the world and they are imparting that value to someone else. They start realizing how blessed they are. They know they don’t have it great relative to some, but they have it great compared to someone living in a cardboard house. Of course, this helps them envision a future for themselves that frees them from the cycle of poverty, crime, and victimhood.
Second, there are the more affluent group members. This year, I took my adult son and two of his friends. All of them were moved by the experience, and one said he wants to come back every year.
That’s not uncommon.
A few years ago, my wife and I were having dinner with several friends a few days before the trip, so I shared a little about it. One of our friends turned to his teenage stepson and asked if he’d like to go. He said he would, and we hastily arranged for him to join us that weekend. This year marked this teen’s third trip with us, and I’ll never forget the emotional scene near the end of the weekend. He’s a quiet kid by nature and the previous two years he hadn’t said much during the time of sharing. But this time he opened up and gave us a window into his heart, which then provided a window into the hearts of others.
“I come from a wealthy family,” he said with emotion in his voice. “I go to a private school. I wasn’t sure you all would accept me. Now you’re some of my best friends.”
One of the girls from the inner city stopped him.
“I don’t want you to think like that,” she said. “We all love you. You’re our friend.”
It’s amazing how you can bring together people who don’t know each other and who are from different socio-economic backgrounds, ask them to do a task together, and watch the miracles that happen as they serve others together. Yes, there’s a sense of accomplishment from building a house in two days. But it’s the giving that’s really a beautiful and powerful thing.
We go there to build a house, but the interactions make everybody a better person. Giving makes us feel alive. It changes our hearts and, therefore, it changes our lives. And in doing so, it provides a rock-solid foundation for authentic leadership – leadership that transforms lives for the better.
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