The Making of a Tenacious Leader
What I learned about leadership by reading to my mom.
By Brandon McClain
I want to tell you a story. It’s one I know very well.
The central character is a black kid growing up in a single-parent household in Wichita, Kan., in the 80s. I’ll save the suspense. That kid was me.
The common wisdom was that I would sell drugs, wind up in jail and become a deadbeat dad, just another statistic. They said it wasn’t a matter of if, but when I would fail.
Most figured the ending to my story had already been written — as it had been written for some of my closest friends — guys who bought into this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Guys whose futures would be snuffed out by bad circumstances, a lack of hope and a shortage of quality leaders in their lives.
What was my ticket out? It’s something called tenacious leadership.
The first tenacious leader I knew was my mom. My mom worked tirelessly to provide for us. As a single mother, she, more than most, recognized the importance of hard work.
When I was 12 years old, I struggled with reading comprehension. My mother told me that I was a great reader — I just needed to prove it to myself. So she had me read to her every day for 30 minutes.
I’m talking about Encyclopedia-sized nursing books. The words were long … and complicated. At first, I fumbled my way through, remembering little of what I read. But my mom made me stick with it and kept encouraging me. Eventually, I was reading her nursing books, as if they were as easy as picture books.
My mom was always there for me. She taught me that obstacles and failings were not the end to my story. She taught me that tenacious leadership is about trying to get better every single day.
Still, as I got older, I witnessed first-hand the crippling power of self-doubt. I was the youngest of four children. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. In my darkest days, I wondered whether my dreams were nothing more than fantasies and if I really was destined for failure.
But on July 13, 1996 — one of the proudest days of my life — I graduated from Langston University in Oklahoma, with a degree in agri-business and economics. That degree gave me the confidence I needed to become the person I wanted to be.
I will show you a failure
Too many people are routinely dismissed because of their race, economic status or family background. Whether in a quiet moment behind closed doors or in a life-defining challenge on the largest stage, they’ve been written off. The same goes for many of us.
Today, I’m the Managing Director of Enterprise Accounts at UPS, the world’s largest transportation and logistics company. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish with the help of tenacious leadership. And I don’t think I’m done. I hope this isn’t my last job at UPS. I think I have more to offer.
There’s a term we use at UPS: constructively dissatisfied. It means we’re never content. We’re always looking for areas of improvement. And perhaps most importantly, we’re not inhibited by the fear of failure.
Thomas Edison once said, Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure. That’s why I refer to a better version of myself — and not the best version. Now, I’m not suggesting you ignore past success. Instead, use it as fuel for future growth.
Asking tough questions
I was 30 years old, driving a truck for UPS during the holiday season — I still remember the route. I had just earned my master’s degree. Honestly, I thought I was above a manual labor job. So I went to my boss and told him about my education and the diploma that made me so proud.
“That’s great,” he said. “But is that piece of paper going to help you unload this truck?”
So I went back to work. Back to delivering an average of 300 packages a day — on an urgent schedule.
I decided I would be the best package car driver in our fleet of some 100,000 drivers. That period was critical to shaping my views on leadership.
Before making demands of others, I decided I needed to ask myself some tough questions about how I could get better.
I saw good leaders, bad leaders, leaders who shined in moments of adversity and those who disappeared when their teams needed them the most.
The first sign of a bad leader? Everything is always about them. They manage by fear or intimidation. And their ego is almost always a size or two larger than it should have been.
Recognizing the type of leader I didn’t want to be was almost as important as identifying the leaders I would emulate. Now I lead a team of directors who manage large multinational accounts across the United States.
The power of diverse thought
Now, look, I’m not naïve.
Unfortunately, some of the very stereotypes I was forced to confront in my upbringing are still alive and well. And they find a way of trickling into the business world.
This troubling trend must end. This is about more than skin color, religion or culture. You need diverse knowledge to excel in today’s hyper-competitive business environment.
UPS does business in more than 220 countries — so we’re reminded every day why diversity matters.
The best leaders — at organizations of all sizes — make diversity a top priority. They effectively explain why diversity matters, that in addition to being a moral obligation, it’s actually good for business.
We all face certain stereotypes. And stereotypes clearly get in the way of progress. Regardless of where such thinking comes from, though, we have to be tenacious and do whatever possible to overcome it.
What’s the best way to do that? Always be learning. Never settle. Know that personal development is your greatest leadership asset.
Brandon McClain is the Managing Director of Enterprise Accounts at UPS.
The commentary was adapted from a speech given by Brandon McClain, Managing Director of Enterprise Accounts at UPS, at the Who’s Who in Asian American Communities Awards on Sept. 26, 2015.