The First Speech: A TEDx Talk on Servant Leadership
I am reminded today of the first speech I ever gave, over ten years ago. I was in 8th grade English, and Ms. Rojas had assigned us the topic of our favorite leader. I jumped at the opportunity. This was my chance to finally show my English teacher that I was capable of crafting an essay that was more relevant than my 21 page treatise on the difference between Dark Jedi and Sith Lords in the context of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, to finally convince the jocks that they should consider kicking someone else’s backpack before lunch, and most importantly, to finally convince that cute girl with blue highlights who listened to deep music that I’d probably never heard of that I indeed possessed that most desired of teenage traits: coolness.
My peers chose some pretty cool options, I’ll admit. Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, and even, Eminem. But only I knew the coolest, most badass leader of all time: Abraham Lincoln. Ohhhh yeahhhhh.Because nothing says teenage heartthrob like stove top hats, long, steamy discussions of railroad commission policy, and bloody civil war, am I right?
I remember working harder on that speech than anything I had ever worked on before. I spent hours researching, writing, and practicing, until the day finally came. I walked up to the front of class, tightly clutching my index cards, and began.
Aaaaaaand that was it. The first speech I ever gave was three words and 13 seconds long. Needless to say, neither Ms. Rojas nor the girl with the blue hair was impressed.
That is where this story could have ended. I was a smart kid—-I could have decided that this thing, public speaking, just wasn’t for me. I could have decided to let my voice go quiet. I could have decided to quit.
But I didn’t. Not because I didn’t want to—-I certainly did—-, but because I couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me.
Caila Litman, who inspired me to join Speech and Debate, didn’t let me quit. Andrew Chan, who patiently went over my speeches, line by line, didn’t let me quit. Connie Yee, who watched me give an endless series of awkward, stumbling speeches, didn’t let me quit. Derick Lennox, who encouraged me after every disappointment, didn’t let me quit. David Matley, who took a chance by giving me my first coaching job, didn’t let me quit. Some of those folks are still my friends. Some of them I’ve lost touch with. But what they have in common, along with so many other special people I’ve been so lucky to meet, is that they believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.
They were leaders in the truest sense of the word; they fought, scraped, and clawed their way to making me a better human being. They put myself above themselves, every single time. And that made all the difference.
And because they made that difference, I hope to make my own, modest one today. You asked me to talk to you about leadership; I want to talk to you about service.
Because the truth is: they’re the same thing. As the Gospel of Mark tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all.” You have seen a lot of great leaders on stage today, and I promise you that if you asked them what pushed them to be great leaders, what got them out of the bed every single day and what kept them up every single night, they would give you the same answer: the people they serve, the people they love. So today, in order to learn how to lead, we are going to learn how to serve.
We are going to learn, like I did, how to give a speech. First, we’ll hit the books and do our research to understand that a good leader asks for advice. Next, we’ll write our speech, managing our arguments the way a leader manages his peoples’ emotions. And finally, we’ll deliver our speech, explaining why the best way for you to get ahead is to put others ahead of you…hopefully using more than three words in the process.
So let’s crack open those books…or those Kindles…or whatever it is you young people use these days. (I asked a student for advice on the right metaphor for searching for answers for his generation. He suggested Tinder. I’m not quite sure that’s right.) I take comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one using outdated sources of knowledge. One of the oldest, worst clichés in leadership history is of the confident, all knowing leader who refuses to listen to what everyone is telling him and succeeds against all odds. Now, I’m not saying this hasn’t happened before. I’m glad Bill Gates ignored IBM when they told him personal computing had no future. I’m glad Malala Yousafzai ignored those who told her to stop promoting female education. And I’m very glad Martin Luther King ignored the FBI when they told him to kill himself.
Yeah that actually happened.
A good leader certainly knows when to buck the consensus and ignore bad advice—-but she only knows this because of a lifetime of accepting good advice.
I remember when I was teaching at a debate camp several years ago. I was about halfway through my coaching career, and although I’d had some major early successes, I hadn’t yet succeeded in taking it to the next level. So I did something I had never done before. I walked into our sun dappled lunch room, plopped down the gray counter, and asked for advice.
“What did you think about my feedback style,” I asked one coach. “You know, I’m really struggling with this one kid who insists on dressing like a penguin,” I queried another. “Honestly, sometimes I don’t know if I’m any good at all—-or if I just got lucky and soon they’ll discover I’m a giant fraud,” I even confessed to a colleague.
I was honest. I was vulnerable.
And some people did not like it.
“Armand, you’re a nice guy and all, but asking us for advice makes you look weak. Like you’re not a leader.”
This hurt, honestly, because I respected the hell out of this guy—-and frankly, still do. I’m sure he meant well. I’m sure he meant to help me.
But I’m also sure he was wrong.
Because here’s the thing: the following year I went from being a coach who taught winners of tournaments to being a coach who taught winners of nationals. There are three reasons why. First, no matter how smart or talented a leader is, she will never exceed the collective knowledge of those she leads; the whole point of being a leader is being able to harness vast amounts of human potential towards a single goal. Second, the sorts of knowledge that you get from those you lead is especially valuable because it is usually the sort of knowledge you’re the most blind to: your weaknesses. I’m very good at knowing that I’m smart, well spoken, and incredibly handsome—-I’m not so good at knowing that I’m not super organized and that I have an unhealthy love of Dim Sum and cheap beer. And third, asking for advice makes people like you. Researcher Katie Liljenquist published the results of a study in Scientific American that found that one of the most successful ways to get people to respect you is…to let them know you respect them, by showing them you value their input and wisdom.
It certainly worked for me. The coach who asked me not to ask for advice? He and I ask each other for advice literally every week, doing the humble research to become better leaders.
So enough research. It’s time to actually write the speech. What do you want to write? Or rather, what do you feel like writing? See, the longer I coach, the more I realize that 90% of my job is not education but psychiatry. I have to reassure sad kids after a tough loss, pump up eager kids before an important debate, and congratulate happy kids after an important victory. I perform a constant high wire act. I criticize those who don’t try enough but leave the door open for redemption. I comfort those who have lost but plant desire for self reflection and growth. I mock bullies by letting them know they could be so much more; I praise the kind by reminding them that the boundary between being sweet and being a pushover is always precarious. I perform heart surgery, day after day, student after student, constantly hoping that my instruments will be true and my words will be precise.
I understand, like Dr. Jack Zenger does, that good leadership is less about what you do and more about how you make people feel. He found that, “that if employees rated a manager as very high on “focus on results” (that is, one’s ability to get things done effectively), there was only a small (14 percent) chance that the manager would be rated among the top 10 percent of leaders overall. However, if in addition to “focus on results,” employees also rated the manager’s ability to “build relationships” very highly, then the likelihood of that person’s being rated as a great leader overall skyrocketed to 72 percent.”
Dr. Zenger’s research reminds me of one incident of heart surgery in particular. I have to be honest: he wasn’t the easiest student to coach. He hadn’t always listened, he’d let his emotions get the best of him, and he’d been more focused on playing games than improving his skills. But the wonderful thing about people is that they can grow, learn, and change. If you introduced me to freshman year HS Armand I wouldn’t recognize him; hell, even the Armand of two years ago would confuse me. People like Brian Louie, Om Alladi, and Ryan Hang had performed some damn good heart surgery on me, and in the process I’d learned a thing or two about wielding my own tools. See, the kid who has had a string of successes this year, the kid who listened patiently as we walked through strategies, the kid who was able to have mature, calm, and remarkably sophisticated conversation about the meaning of love—-that kid would probably slap his freshman year version in the face. Sure, he’s still frustrating, still immature, and still distracted—-but thanks, in part at least, to the right mix of encouragement and criticism—-he’s headed in the right direction.
I hope he keeps going. I hope I can too.
Finally, now that we’ve researched and written our speech, it’s time to deliver it. It’s time to talk about why putting others ahead of yourself is the only way to get ahead.
I remember when one of my students made it to finals of the Glenbrooks tournament, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country. He ranked in the top ten, easily placing him amongst the best in the nation. But when he walked off that stage, he walked not into an eager embrace but an angry glare.
I was furious. Not because he hadn’t done well—-he had—-but because he hadn’t done the best he could. He’d only spoken once the entire round, and while it was a helluva speech, it just wasn’t enough. And he knew it. And he cared.
Because just a few hours earlier, after being told the topics for the final round, I jumped into my crappy little deathbox of a rental car, drove across the icy Chicago winter like a madman, and paid most of my stipend for that trip to a cramped Kinko’s so that I could print every article, every legislation, every possible piece of information that could be useful in that final round. I’ve actually googlemapsed the route I took several times after, and to this day I cannot explain to you how I physically covered that much distance in that much time without defying the laws of physics, much less actual, y’know, laws. I just can’t.
So he knew. He knew what I would do for him, what lengths I would go for him. Not just that day, but everyday. He knew that I showed up to every practice, that I reviewed every speech, that I read every outline. He knew there were bags under my eyes larger than my belly when I said, “One more time.” He knew how many favors I’d called in to get help from every coach I knew. He knew how many finals I’d put off studying for, how much money I’d forsaken to coach him, how many hours I’d taken from my life to give to his.
But more importantly, he knew that I did this for all my students. And even more importantly than that, he knew that I did this not because I was better or kinder or wiser than anyone else, but because the same had been done for me, and one day I expected—-I knew—-that he would do the same for someone else.
So he knew.
He knew all of this, when he called me and said, “Armand. We just became National Champions. Thank you.”
His final speech was a little longer than my first. And maybe even a little bit better.
And that’s okeh.
Because after researching that humbly asking for advice is important, writing that managing emotions is crucial, and speaking out that putting others ahead of yourself is necessary, I think of the first speech I ever gave, of that schlubby little fat kid sweating under those bright big lights. I am reminded of leaders like Iain Lampert, Matthew Swanson, Aldo Zilli, and so many others who showed me how to lead. I am reminded of students like Devangi Vivrekar, Jega Vigneshwaran, Saifullah Khan, Uzair Khan, and so many others who showed me how to love. And I am reminded of all who I have served, who have showed me that my first speech was far from my last.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, and don’t you fucking forget it.
I certainly won’t.