As I write this column the situation in Sudan has become critical again. Following the results of a peaceful referendum held in January 9th 2011 that divided the country into two independent states, violence started again at the border. The prospects of an acceptable resolution are dim. Leadership grounded in purpose is needed more than ever.
Several months ago I met a remarkable man called Lopez Lomong. Lopez is a 1500m runner for the US Olympic team, who aims at qualifying for the London Olympics. Lopez became famous at the Beijing Olympic Games where he was selected by his teammates to carry the US flag during the Opening ceremonies. Lopez is one of Sudan's "Lost Boys" and his story is a symbol of leadership, resilience and human achievement.
Lopez Lomong, was born Lopepe Lomong and was raised in a small village of South Sudan , during Sudan's second civil war. When he was six, he was abducted by paramilitary forces who aimed at turning boys into soldiers. His family thought he had been killed. Lopepe was too small and weak to carry a rifle so he was left to die in a cell with more kids. One night, together with a group of three ten year olds, he was able to escape. His not much older friends took pity on the little Lopepe. Together they ran barefoot for three days and nights until they arrived at a refugee camp in Kenya.
Lopepe remained in Kenya for ten years where he was nicknamed Lopez. In 2000, he watched the Sydney Olympic Games in a small black and white television located in a crowded store of the refugee camp. He attentively watched as US runner, Michael Johnson, emotionally cried after winning his gold medals. It was there and then that he decided to become an Olympic runner.
In 2001 through Catholic Charities, Lopez, along with many other "Lost Boys" was settled in the US. Through determination, self discipline and endless hours of hard work, he became fluent in English; was able to keep up with school work and became a successful track and cross country runner in high school and college. In 2008 he became a US citizen and qualified for the Beijing Olympic Games. As his story became known, HBO was able to contact his family and arrange for a reunion. More than a decade had past since his abduction. Lopez claims that when he met his mother they hugged and danced for three days. As he departed, to continue his education in the US, his mother gave him a ring she had made out of colored beads. It was through this ring that she was able to identify his no longer "lost boy" on TV as he carried the US flag at the Beijing games. "I am not just a lost boy", Lopez told me in describing his emotion in Beijing. "I am also an American".
The Lopez story reflects five great truths about leadership. First: Dream big. Dare to achieve impossible task. When Lopez decided he was going to be an Olympic athlete it was only a dream. He was a poor boy in Kenya without the means to even get started. He just knew that he loved to run and that running had saved his life. When he arrived in the US, he dared to try for the track team and step by step he was able to become a competitive runner. Lopez told me that there is never a loss in trying to pursue what seems like an impossible dream. The worst thing that can happen is that you end up in a much better place than where you started. The best thing that can happen is that you may even achieve your dreams.
Second: Purpose inspires our dreams. "I used to run for my life. Now I run for joy and hope". Lopez's life is firmly anchored in purpose. He runs to remind the world of what happened and continues to happen in Africa. He runs to encourage kids around the world to dare to dream big, to work hard and to seek every available opportunity to move forward. He runs to remind the world that providing children with education in safe and nourishing environments is the only way to change the world.
Third: If purpose inspires, planning and hard work will drive us. Lopez is a very disciplined and tenacious man in every aspect of his life. He is clear about his personal and professional goals; he has specific plans of action with targets and measurements to evaluate his progress; and he focuses his time to ensure he dedicates enough time and effort to achieve these targets. As he told me, the rest is hard work and "there is no way to short-change that".
Fourth: Embrace your role as a leader and role model. Lopez is comfortable in his own skin as an athlete and as a role model. He understands and embraces the fact that he is more than a great runner. He is both a living symbol of the Lost Boys and of the immigrant experience in the US. He lives to prove that people, no matter where they come from, can still achieve extraordinary things in the US if the right opportunities are provided to them. Lopez firmly understands that his success in the field of play provides him with a great bully pulpit to tell his story. He is able to switch from role model to fierce competitor seamlessly. He is aware that his words and actions, matter.
Fifth: Inspire the world with your work. Lopez is looking forward to the London Olympics. He knows that it is important for him to make the Games, not only for himself but for the millions of people that will be watching him perform. Perhaps his story will inspire the world. Perhaps it will bring joy and hope to his country, Sudan, in what seems to be a critical time for peace. Perhaps it will even unite and inspire ours, as we struggle through the difficult arguments leading into the November election.