Leadership Comes from the Heart

If you’ve heard me speak on leadership, you know that I have four foundational elements of transformational leadership:

  1. Leadership is a choice;
  2. Leadership is inside out;
  3. Leadership comes from the heart; and
  4. Leadership is a matter of life (not just business)

These concepts are sometimes difficult to explain (and understand) in the abstract, but I recently was given the gift of a story that embodies all four of these leadership foundations – a story that I want to share with you – the story of Ralph and Lou.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to the Downey Association of Realtors in Downey, CA, which included the special gift of having a driver during my trip, Lourdes (Lou) Wilcox. When Lou (a woman) picked me up at the airport, our conversation quickly turned to a friend of Lou’s who lives in North Carolina, Ralph. When I asked Lou how she had gotten to know Ralph, I had no idea that I was about to be gifted a beautiful story of leadership and service, but that’s the nature of stories – like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

About ten years ago, Lou was working at a church office in California, and her hours included working in the evenings. Every evening (at different times) someone would push an envelope containing a small amount of money through the mail slot in her door. With one exception (one dollar), the envelope always contained change (forty cents, sixty cents, eighty cents, etc.), and there was a single word written on the envelope: tithe. If you’re not familiar with tithing, it involves giving ten percent of everything you earn to the church. Lou always wondered about these envelopes, so one evening, when she saw the envelope being slid through, she courageously opened the door. It was late, dark and she didn’t know who would be standing on the other side of the door, but she just had to know. That’s the night that Lou met Ralph.

Standing on the other side of the door was a man who clearly was homeless. He was unable or unwilling to look Lou in the eyes, but she asked him his name and he said “Ralph.” She asked Ralph if he wanted to come inside, but he declined. Lou then asked Ralph about the envelopes, and he confirmed that every day he gave to the church ten percent (his tithe) of the money he was given each day from his panhandling. This man who had nothing and was living on the street was still doing what he had learned as a child – to give ten percent to the church. Talk about doing the right thing even when it’s difficult.

Lou also learned that Ralph had been living on the streets for over 30 years, and she asked Ralph if there was anything she could do for him. Ralph said no, but she told him to let her know if she could ever do anything for him. When Ralph left that evening, Lou knew that the envelopes would continue to arrive, but she didn’t know if she would ever see Ralph again. Well, several weeks later Ralph showed up again, this time waiting in the parking lot when Lou arrived.

When Lou got out of her car, Ralph greeted her by name, and Lou was surprised that Ralph had remembered her name. Ralph then asked Lou if she would help him find his family. Lou agreed and, with the assistance of Google, the church’s pastor, some online search businesses, calls to a few police departments where Ralph’s family had lived years ago, and some blessings (what some of you call luck), Lou eventually found and called Ralph’s sister living in North Carolina. Ralph’s sister was excited to hear from Lou and to hear that Ralph was still alive, since she had not heard from Ralph for over thirty years. Lou learned that Ralph was bi-polar and had moved away and started living on the streets due to lack of appropriate care and medication.

A few weeks later, Ralph returned to find out if Lou had been able to find his family, and Lou told him that she had arranged for his sister to call that day. Ralph was going to be speaking to his sister after over thirty years. During the phone call, Ralph’s sister invited him to visit her in North Carolina, and Lou and the church pastor offered to buy Ralph a bus ticket (a plane ticket was not an option since Ralph did not have any identification). However, Ralph refused the offer of the free bus ticket and instead asked if there was any work he could do at the church to earn the money for his bus ticket. Ralph worked at the church for a few weeks, earned enough money for his bus ticket, and took the trip to North Carolina. During that trip, Ralph’s sister invited him to stay with her, and Ralph remained in North Carolina. He also got the treatment and medication he needed and got a job, living a more normal life and getting off the streets for the first time in dozens of years. And you can already guess that Ralph and Lou have remained friends and in regular contact, mostly via letters (yes, actual hand written letters).

This was the story that Lou gifted me with just a few weeks ago, and it’s a gift filled with clear examples of the four leadership foundations listed above: choices, inside out leadership, leading from the heart, and life rather than business. Here are just a few of the life leadership examples from the Ralph and Lou story:

  • Ralph chose to honor what he knew was right (tithing) despite living on the streets and having little or nothing.
  • Lou chose to open the door that night despite not knowing who was standing outside.
  • Lou offered to help Ralph without knowing him or anything about him.
  • Ralph came back and asked for help.
  • Lou and the church pastor honored their commitment to help Ralph find his family.
  • Ralph refused the free bus ticket, but instead chose to work to earn the money for the bus ticket.
  • Ralph’s sister invited Ralph to come live with her and her family without knowing anything about who Ralph was after over thirty years.

These are all choices. These are all examples of leading from the inside out. These are all from the heart. These are all examples of life leadership (no business required). And it’s also clear that the Ralph and Lou story would not have happened without each one of these courageous leadership choices.

Lou was a gift to me on my recent trip to California, which included many hours of other conversations and sharing of life stories and questions. The Ralph and Lou story was a gift to me during my time with Lou, and Lou was quite surprised when she asked to attend my speaking engagement and heard me open my keynote with a beautiful leadership story (perhaps you can guess which one).

Leadership is not about positions, roles, directives or assignments. Leadership is not about anointings or taking over. Leadership is not about giving orders and controlling. Leadership is about vulnerability and trust. Leadership is about choices and serving. Leadership is about caring and giving. Leadership is about influence and impact. Leadership is about stories and life. Leadership is about and from the heart. Thank you Lou (and Ralph) for gifting me with your story – a story that I will always remember and continue to share with others so that they too get the gift.

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