I once started out in my Honda Civic on a cross-country trip through the small towns of America. I was a young photo-journalist, intent on interviewing ordinary people about their values. I left from upstate New York and headed south, excited and afraid at the same time.
When I entered a Waffle House restaurant in West Virginia, a man in the back caught my eye, so I approached him and asked if he had a few minutes. He invited me to sit down, then I pulled out my pad of questions and asked, “Where did you get your values?”
He stared back at me blankly and after several silent moments, said, with a southern, two-syllable drawl, “Wha-ut?
I panicked and then heard a voice in my own head saying “Go first.” Realizing it would help to give an example, I told the story of how my mother always said, when I passed a person on the street, to look that person in the eyes, give them a big smile, and say “Hi,” as friendly as I could. I told him it was difficult at first, since I was young and pretty shy, but then it got easier and now it’s just part of me. “So being friendly is one of my values,” I said. “And I got it from my Mom.”
He nodded his head and chewed on his toothpick for awhile, then said “When I was little and my daddy used to whup me when he’d get a drinkin’, I’d go out on the back porch wantin’ to cry and my Grandaddy would be there. He’d look at me and say, ‘Son, looks like you’ve got some big feelings goin’ on. Why don’t you go down under that oak tree and write yourself some poems. That’ll help you with them big feelings.’ So I did, I wrote a lot of poems. I still do. Wanna hear one?”
He recited a poem by heart, and then wrote it down on the placemat for me. And we sat in that plastic booth for another hour while he told stories he had never told to another person—about his own anger, his big dreams, his pickup truck and double-wide, his drinking problem, his fear of being in love and messing it up like his dad. And every story he told me taught me something I never knew. He found parts of himself that had been lost, simply because I was there to hear and receive them. And the same was true for me. When we left that restaurant, we were two different people from the ones who had walked in.
What I learned that day was the importance of “going first.” I didn’t know, all those years ago, that the word leadership comes from an Old English word meaning “go first.” But I know now that I can be the cause of a profound conversation, if I dare to go first—tell a story, ask a few questions, and listen like my life depended on it.
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