Coca Cola was invented by an Atlanta pharmacist way back in 1886. Even now, over 130 years later, the recipe remains a secret. The only written copy is kept in a vault deep inside Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta. Dr. Pepper, meanwhile, split its secret “23 flavors” recipe into two halves secured at two separate banks. Bush’s Baked Beans is the most popular beans in the country, and they’ve jealously guarded their family recipe since the 1970s. McDonald’s even calls the Big Mac’s mysterious mayo its “secret sauce.” And if you ask my Italian mother what’s in her famous tomato sauce, she’ll say, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you!”
Well, I’ve got a secret sauce, too. The only difference is that I’m busy telling the world about it.
This past week, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of our Global Youth Leadership Academy. In July we brought forty high school students from around the country to Greece for a weeklong intense leadership development program. And this might have been the best one yet. At the end of the program, every single one of those kids said those seven days were lifechanging. Over the next few days, dozens of emails and texts poured in from parents, all of whom were astounded by the changes in their sons and daughters. I read the same word over and over: lifechanging. “How did you do this in just one week?” one parent asked me. “What’s your secret sauce?”
Thing is, we don’t keep our recipe locked up in a vault somewhere. Heinz may have fifty-seven ingredients in its famous ketchup recipe, but we only have one. It’s a single ingredient that has the power to change lives. Are you ready for it?
Our staff at the National Leadership Academy and the Global Youth Leadership Academy work relentlessly to build a culture of authenticity. I’ve been honored to work with high school students for more than thirty years, and I’ve poured into kids from all walks of life: black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, urban, rural, rich, poor, conservative, and liberal. Just about the only thing these high school students have in common is that they have incredibly potent bullshit detectors. They can smell a fraud from a million miles away. That’s why last week our GYLA staff poured their blood, sweat, and tears into earning the trust of those forty high school kids. Only when you do that can you be a true servant leader. By the end of our week in Greece, you literally had to peel these kids off each other—they loved each other that much.
This may not sound like much of a secret sauce. But as I explained to those parents, only with a firm foundation of authenticity can you change the lives of others. When a self-conscious sixteen-year-old boy trusts that you have his back no matter what, he will slowly leave his comfort zone and do something he never in a million years thought he would do, like dance or speak publicly. When you earn the trust of a shy seventeen-year-old girl, she will find the courage to share her story and be vulnerable to her peers. The single most important trait these students learn from their GYLA experience is self-love. Because once you learn to love yourself, then you can truly love and serve others.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins asks his readers, “What are you greatest at in the world?” to help leaders and organizations figure out their own secret sauce to move from good to great. As for me, I’m far from the greatest author, speaker, or leadership expert. However, what I am great at is building cultures of authenticity so that others are free to be vulnerable and therefore free to grow as individuals. I repeat the same formula at my NLA and GYLA events, at my men of faith retreats, heart-led leader seminars, corporate retreats, leadership conferences, and my speaking circuit. No matter if I am working with a teenager or a Fortune 500 CEO, my first step is to earn their trust. Full stop. In some cases that might mean sharing a deeply personal story or listening intently to someone’s else’s story. If you can’t earn a person’s trust, you will never be able to reach their heart. If you can’t reach their heart, you will never be able to have a positive influence. And if you can’t have a positive influence on the lives of others, you will never be able to have organizational greatness… or change the world!
My staff and I have cracked the code on how to connect with young people, but here’s the beautiful part: You can apply the same secret sauce to your friends, family, and coworkers. Your employees and clients. Your barista and bank teller. When you realize that it’s not all about you, when your natural frame of mind is to serve others, your authentic self emerges. If you manage to do this, I guarantee your impact on others will be lifechanging.
Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, Bush’s Baked Beans, McDonald’s, and my wonderful mama may have secret recipes they guard with their lives, but as much as we may enjoy their delicious ingredients, they don’t change lives. Only when you build cultures of authenticity, vulnerability, and trust do you create an environment where people truly grow and change. You won’t find that recipe in a corporate vault or bank safe… you will find it in your heart!