Accidental Teachers

I have introduced the “accidental teachers” in my life who have passed on some of the most transformative lessons.

The education they’ve given me has been invaluable. Not just in terms of the leadership lessons they’ve taught, but in the realization that much of our leadership comes when we ourselves play the role of accidental teachers. Since we never know when that might be, it’s wise to live as we’d like to be seen.

There’s a letter that hangs on my wall from an accidental teacher named Alana. It has hung on the wall of every office I’ve had for the past 13 years. It always takes me back to one of my first loves.

You see, when I was 21 years old, I was head-over-heels, heartbreakingly, cannot-live-without-her in love with a girl. I think her name was Stephanie.

Love

Needless to say, Stephanie and I didn’t really work out, but she’s still responsible for some of the most important things in my life.

Both Stephanie and I went to school at a small university on the east coast of Canada called Mount Allison University. It has held steady at around 2,000 students in the sleepy town of Sackville, New Brunswick for decades.

Sackville boasts a population of perhaps 5,000 people when the students are there. In the summer however, life slows to a snail’s pace as perhaps only a couple of hundred students stick around to take care of various on-campus jobs and research positions.

In the spring of 1998, I learned that Stephanie was going to be one of those 200 people. She would be spending her summer working in one of the campus labs. I quickly did the math and determined that having only one-tenth the number of men around increased my chances of being noticed significantly.

A Summer Job in Sackville Became My Mission

The most promising position looked to be being a graphic designer for the student union. Having spent plenty of time in high school working on the campus paper and the yearbook, I breezed through the technical requirements in the interview. It was then they threw me a curveball.

“What kind of experience do you have in fundraising?”  They asked unexpectedly.

It turns out they had added the coordination of a fundraising campaign to the job description – a development I wasn’t particularly thrilled about. To me, fundraising had always meant chocolate-covered almonds hawked by Cub Scouts outside of the liquor store. I had never been good at fundraising, and never had a whole lot of interest in doing it.

I did however have a whole lot of interest in Stephanie, so despite my misgivings about having to run a fundraiser, I accepted the job when they decided to offer it to me.

It was a decision that completely changed my life.

On the May long weekend of 1998, I arrived in London, Ontario for the national conference of Canada’s largest student fundraiser: “Shinerama: Students’ Fighting Cystic Fibrosis” www.shinerama.ca.  Nothing has been the same for me since.

That weekend introduced me to a passion for fundraising I didn’t know I had, and a new realization about leadership: credibility as a leader doesn’t come from power, money, influence, or fear.  It comes from the ability to make those around you feel like they are better because you are a part of their life.

If you can make people feel as if they are capable of more when you are around, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. The amazing people I met that weekend, and for the 14 years that have followed, opened my eyes to the extraordinary things that can happen when you put youth, energy, and friendship together.

I returned to Mount Allison dedicated to reinvigorating a Shinerama Campaign that had been the worst in the country the year before. Somehow, working with people who are still a part of my life, we smashed the campus’ previous fundraising record and raised more than $15,000. We became the number one per-capita fundraising school in the country.

Money

Looking back, I realize now how little money $15,000 is in the world of big-time fundraising, but at the age of 21, it made us believe anything was possible.

That record-breaking campaign was followed by another in 1999, which earned me an invitation to return to the National Conference as a Campaign Advisor. I was helping six other schools learn how to plan, fund, and market their own campaigns.

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A couple of years later, I was selected to head up the Ontario and Quebec Region of the campaign, an area responsible for over half-a-million dollars in donations each year.

In 2004, I was given the chance to serve as the National Chair of the campaign, and was lucky enough to oversee the two most successful campaigns in history up to that point. Since my term as National Chair ended in 2006, I have continued to support the campaign by speaking each year at the National Conference, and donating as much time and money as I can afford. It has been a 14 year voyage of friendship, passion, and success fighting the number-one inherited killer of children in Canada.

The Letter

This brings us back to the letter hanging on my wall from Alana, who was the Vice-President Operations of the Mount Allison Students’ Union. It’s dated March 13th, 1998, and reads in part:

Dear Drew,

Thank you for your application for the position of Publications Editor and Shinerama Director for the upcoming summer. While we were impressed with what you have to offer, we do not feel that you are the proper fit for the role at this time…

I Was Initially Turned Down

I was told that I wasn’t good enough to run the worst Shinerama campaign in the country.

The man to whom they offered the position decided to accept another job on campus, and when he did so, they settled for their second choice. Me.

Since being their “second choice” I’ve spent 14 years with the campaign and have helped them raise millions of dollars. At one point I was in charge of coordinating all 65 campaigns and 35,000 volunteers.

And almost every day of that journey I’ve looked at a letter saying someone thought I wasn’t good enough to run the worst campaign in the country.

That letter is there to remind me that anyone else who tells me I’m not good enough is probably just as wrong as that hiring committee 14 years ago.

You Have Two Choices

You are going to be told you’re not good enough a lot in your life. You’re going to be told that you’re not good enough for jobs you want, for awards you think you deserve, for relationships you want to have. You’re going to be told your ideas aren’t good enough, that they’re too naive, that they’ve been tried before.

Every time someone tells you you’re not good enough, you have two choices: believe them and lower your expectations, or simply tell yourself that they’re wrong. Don’t disrespect them or hate them or decide they aren’t worth your time. Simply choose to believe that they’re wrong.

You may not always get the chance I did with Shinerama: to actually perform the task from which you’re turned away, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right.

Why should you listen to anyone who tells you what you can or cannot do? Because they’re experts? Leaders respect experts, but they don’t revere them. I think a key part of leadership is remembering that human history is the story of experts being proven wrong.

Experts Can Be Wrong

I think leadership is having the ability to respect experts while never forgetting that perhaps they’re experts like Charlie Chaplin was when he said, “The cinema is only a fad. It’s canned drama. What people really want is flesh and blood on the stage.”

Perhaps they’re experts like Albert Einstein when he observed, “There is absolutely no evidence that atomic energy could ever exist. It would mean the atom would have to be smashed at will.”

You are the world’s biggest expert on you. The foremost authority and the final word on what you are capable of, and the validity of your dreams, is you.

When they say you’re not good enough…they’re wrong.

Hey…nobody’s perfect.

Do You Know Any Accidental Teachers?

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Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.