My stepson, Anthony, visited home last week after finishing his first year at West Point Military Academy. While he was here, Jill and I had the pleasure of spending time with his new girlfriend, Jess. She’s a whip-smart young lady, and I could tell within a few hours of meeting her that she was incredibly special.
After catching a Colorado Rockies game, Jill, Anthony, Jess, and I swung by my office in downtown Denver. As I picked up a few things, Jess looked at the paintings on the wall. Now, I’m proud of my artwork collection; I even hired a curator to help me arrange them to tell a story. I noticed that Jess was absorbed in two paintings that I’d deliberately hung side by side. The first was a beautiful and simple depiction of the colorful mountainside shanties outside Rio De Janeiro, known as favelas. The second was by an established Venetian impressionist painter.
“Which one is your favorite?” I asked Jess.
She gazed thoughtfully at the two paintings. “They’re both beautiful,” she said after a long pause. “But I like this one,” pointing to the Brazilian landscape. “There’s something about the shack houses that is so heartbreaking and authentic. It just moves me.”
I explained to Jess that it was interesting that she’d zeroed in on those two paintings. They’re also my two favorites, but for very different reasons. The impressionist painting I’d bought in Italy, and it was quite expensive. It was the kind of thing I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be able to afford. It represents all the arduous work and sacrifice I’ve put into my career over the years.
“But the Brazilian painting cost a fraction of that,” I said. “It’s probably worth $500, and that’s only because the frame cost $450. I bought that picture many years ago from a street artist in Rio. I didn’t have much money back then, and $50 was all I could afford. I was drawn to it for the same reason you were. There’s something about the way the sun hits those mountainside favelas that is so genuine and real.”
To me, that painting represents struggle. A reminder that life isn’t easy. It’s unfair. You must work your tail off for everything in this world and make your own luck. “These two paintings are next to each other because they represent the opposite ends of life,” I said. “And the fact that you chose the one by the unknown street artist tells me there is something incredibly special about you. I’m so glad that you are in Anthony’s life.”
As we admired the paintings, I thought back to a summer job I had during college. I was a counselor at a camp for academically gifted teens called Summer Ventures. I felt a bit out of place considering I’d flunked basic algebra half a dozen times, and this camp catered to kids who were exceptional at math and science. Mercifully, it wasn’t up to me to teach them calculus; all I had to do was supervise the dorms and serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Most of the staff were my fellow students at East Carolina University. I knew them from sports teams, clubs, and fraternities. But there was one guy who didn’t really fit in. His name was Steve. Instead of playing rugby, he played chess. Instead of drinking beer, he built computers. Instead of watching football, he played Dungeons and Dragons. He even wore thick coke-bottle glasses. Steve was also quiet and unassuming, so we didn’t always notice when he was around.
One day, all hell broke loose at the camp. The busses didn’t arrive on time. The kids were late for everything. The meals didn’t show up. Nobody and nothing were where they were supposed to be. Well, as it turned out, that morning Steve had been rushed to the oral surgeon for an emergency wisdom tooth extraction. He wasn’t there to make the daily schedule, manage the busses, coordinate the cafeteria, or shuttle the kids from their dorms among countless other tasks that I and the other counselors took for granted. Steve was the quiet leader who made the camp run like a tightly wound watch. Like that $50 painting from Rio, he was understated and undervalued. The kind of leader you can only genuinely appreciate once they are gone.
It’s the Steve’s of the world—the $50 street paintings—who truly get all the work done in a humble and unnoticed way. Thankfully there are people like Jess around who know how to spot them. It took me many years to grasp the significance of those Brazilian favelas, but she understood it innately, just as she understood the quiet qualities that make my stepson such a beautiful man and a strong leader. Those two paintings are side by side not only because they represent the opposite ends of life, but because they represent the opposite ends of leadership. Too often the leader with all the titles and positional authority gets the glamor, worth, and attention, just like that fancy Venetian impressionist painting. Remember, Heart-Led Leaders are not flashy. They aren’t loud. They don’t seek attention. But like that simple painting from Rio, their authenticity is appreciated one brushstroke at a time.