Willie Cook walked into the small grocery store my family owned in the Herron Hill District of Pittsburgh and gathered several inexpensive items into a shopping bag—four cartons of cigarettes, a can of room deodorant, a tube of toothpaste, and some food.
He walked to the register and asked my dad to make change for a twenty- dollar bill. Then, as Dad counted the change, Cook took a lye solution he had mixed in a coffee can, threw it into my father’s face, and raced toward the door with $18 worth of unpurchased goods.
Dad grabbed the closest thing to him—a bottle of syrup—and threw it at Cook, breaking the bottle and cutting Cook’s head as Cook fled. Cook was arrested fifteen minutes later and eventually pled guilty to his crimes, but his assault had left my father in a serious condition.
“There’s nothing more vicious than the throwing of acid or lye in a person’s eye,” the judge would tell Cook at the sentencing. “You would have been better off using a gun.”53
It was May 26, 1960, and I was still just two years old as my mother and grandmother rushed to the emergency room of St. Francis General Hospital to await word on my father’s fate. My dad, who was thirty at the time, suffered burns on his face, neck, shoulder, and elbow, but the most severe injury was the burn to his eyes. For several days, in fact, my parents feared the attack would leave my father completely blind.
“Every day we prayed with each other that he would be able to see you again,” my mother told me when she would recount the story.
Fortunately, Dad’s right eye healed enough that he could see with the aid of glasses, which also helped cover the disfigurations on his face. And eventually his sight in that eye improved. The other eye, however, was replaced with an egg-shaped piece of glass.
Clearly my parents faced some pretty significant challenges in the immediate aftermath of his injuries, and their fears weighed heavily on their minds. What if my dad lost his sight completely? How long might he be out of work? Or limited in his work? How would he react to suspicious customers? How might this change his view of people, including himself?
Dad could have second-guessed how he handled the robbery and allowed that blow to his pride to grow into an insecurity about his ability to take care of the store—and his family. He could have grown fearful of how other people might judge him because of the burn marks around his eyes. He could have grown bitter, angry, defiant, and distrustful. He could have isolated himself from people or treated everyone around him as another potential assailant.
Instead, my dad faced his pride and fears in a different way: by taking the focus off of himself.
My dad recognized a fundamental truth about transformative influence: it’s not about you.
Of course, he never described his outlook as a key element in a strong leadership microclimate. But when I reflect on his life, it’s easy to see how his outward focus shaped his influence—on me and on everyone who knew him. He didn’t wallow in self-pity. He served others—his wife, his family, his customers, his friends, and his community. He wasn’t happy about what had happened to him, but he wasn’t bitter about it. Instead, he was thankful that he had survived and grateful for more time with the people who were around him. Rather than looking into his fears and pride and allowing them to shape his future around all that he had lost, he kept his sights squarely on all that he had and all that he could give to others. That outward focus was part of who he was, and it was a reason he stood out in the storms of his life.
When we get up every morning, we can choose to focus on the fears and pride within us. Giving them our attention gives them permission to influence, and at times even rule, our decisions. They become the storm-makers of our microclimate.
The better choice is to look outside of ourselves, which gives us a full view of the climates, good and bad, and puts the storms into the context of a bigger, more hope-filled reality. Access to information and diverse opinions become tools for driving collaboration and meaningful change. We use social media to inspire and equip others, not to argue with others, to demean their points of view, or over-emphasize the highlights of our lives. We see technology as something we can use to help others excel in their work and lead more fulfilling lives, not as a threat to our job security. We see the value of making quick and timely decisions, without feeling threatened by a false need to make premature decisions. And if we’re not consumed by our fears and pride, we’re free to give proper attention to the things that the fast pace of life can truly threaten—things like rest and work-life balance.
Modern leadership comes with a tremendous need to focus our attention on those we lead—in other words, to serve others. The diverse congregations we serve demand our attention, and many of them will hashtag us into submission if we ignore them for too long. The ability to focus outside ourselves, however, isn’t just about paying attention to the various viewpoints of others, and it certainly isn’t something we should do because it’s forced upon us. Instead, it starts with an inner confidence. So, if we want a microclimate that helps us look outside the storms of life, then we have to lead with an inner confidence. We need a sense of security that thwarts our fears and provides a degree of certainty in our interactions with others.
Adapted and reprinted with permission from Transfluence: How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today’s Climates of Change by Walt Rakowich, copyright ©2020. Published by Post Hill Press, distributed by Simon & Schuster.
Lead with Transformative Influence
Transfluence shows leaders how they can have transformative influence by overcoming their fears and pride, building transparency into their leadership, developing a strong core of authentic values, and passionately pursuing a meaningful purpose. Available Now.