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What a Homeless Man Taught Me About Leadership

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It was the second day in a row I passed by a man sitting on the sidewalk on Broadway in front of a now closed restaurant near my office in New York City. The first day he asked me if I had any money. I was in a rush to meet someone so I politely said no, but told him I hoped he stayed warm. The second day it was even colder, and we were about to get a foot of snow the next day. He asked me the same question, and my initial response was the same. However, this time I stopped and introduced myself and asked him his name. I wanted to learn more about him. This one little action taught me a valuable lesson, which I could never imagine, about what leadership is all about.

As you think of the most influential leaders in the world today, you may find it difficult to name them. If you do, chances are it's someone with a big title, money or fame. Joshua showed me it's none of that. Leadership is not about raising yourself above others, it's being one with others. It's also not about affecting the masses; it's about affecting just one person.

Leadership does not mean having followers; it's about having an impact, or influence, on those around you. After that second day when I stopped to talk to Joshua and saw him as a man like me -- not a stereotype of a homeless man -- I couldn't stop thinking about how I could help him since he already helped me. I asked a simple question to my Facebook friends:

homeless

The response was overwhelming. What I learned was many of my friends interact frequently with people living on their streets and in their communities. They are not only prepared with snack bars, transit cards, toiletries, gloves and more to give to those who are less fortunate, they stop and acknowledge them and ask about what they need. Fellow Huffington Post blogger, Angela Maiers, commented:

Here is what is powerful about this, Tim. Not only did your personal gesture and act of kindness go noticed by this man who deserves it from the world, your act of sharing it inspires everyone to notice a little bit more, linger a bit longer and listen with a more empathetic heart.

A lesson for all of us can be summed up with: Sharing what you do can be more powerful that what you actually do. This didn't come from a message that was declared, or an order "passed down," it was shared with those around me. Leaders belong in the community, not above it.

I heard Mitch Joel talk on his podcast, Six Pixels, that small ripples, repeated consistently, create waves. I often refer to this in talks I give. Just the other day, I was on a Google Hangout with Jenn Shaw, CEO of Bella Minds, and asked her how she would define leadership. Her response reminds me of what Joshua taught me, "Leadership is helpfulness. You don't have to lead a million people, just someone." It's the little ripples: Taking time to stop and talk to someone sitting on the street, sharing an experience with your friends or coworkers, or writing a post to help others realize they are leaders too. It just takes helping someone to become a leader.

What I learned from Joshua has changed my life and can hopefully help many of us who are rushing from meeting to meeting trying to get "it" all done:

  • We need to see what's right in front of us. Joshua is not just someone we label as "homeless." He is a man who has a past, present and future. We need to ask ourselves what small gesture can we make with the people who come into our path? Just seeing what is right in front of us is a very powerful element of leadership.
  • Joshua shows us how we need to show up against unimaginable odds. It brings us back to our humanity.
  • Leaders thrive in communities as they can share their perspectives and we all learn from each other.

I didn't realize what an impact Joshua would have on me. Next time I see Joshua, I'm going to ask him about his needs, learn more about him and share with him how he has changed so many lives. Isn't that what leadership is about?