The Mercedes W12 race car is arguably the best Formula 1 car ever built. On an F1 track against other F1 cars, it has proven to be nearly unbeatable. However, you could not drive the W12 to your local grocery and back without severe difficulty, if at all. My Mercedes is exceptional at running to the store or work or Dallas but would get killed on the F1 track. The W12 was purpose built to race Formula 1. It does that to near perfection and does nothing else, really.
Luckily, people aren’t like race cars most of the time. We tend to be reasonably versatile and can often manage many things, even if we are not the master of any of them. However, we do each have our sweet spots—places where we shine and outperform other people. How we come to be purpose built for certain things is a process I find intensely interesting.
Thursday night, I attended an event at the new facility of ReMerge, a local organization that helps women who were headed to prison regain their lives, children, and dignity. A dear friend of mine was not only the architect for the facility but was also primarily responsible for gathering the art that adorns the walls. The evening was both a fundraiser and a celebration of the new digs and the amazing art.
During the party, I met DG Smalling, an artist whose work I admire and have in my collection. The image above is one of his pieces that I have. As we were talking, he told the story of how he started doing his art. He was employed as contract security for the clinicians working to repatriate women in the middle east who had been held in rape camps. The women were frightened of him and his men as they had no real way of distinguishing between them and their previous captors.
He began sketching simple line drawings of flowers and things and then just putting them in front of the women and walking on so they would not feel threatened. As he drew more and more and got positive responses, he found ways to draw faster and faster. Finally, he wasn’t even lifting the pen from the page, as he created a drawing from a single line.
He took that skill, learned while being part of an armed security force in the middle east, and transformed it into an art form that he has used to reach people in many communities by representing things that are part of their culture and heritage. He is humble about his talent and art and said many times during our discussion that he is blessed to be able to do what he does. I wonder if he had not been in that situation in the middle east, would he have become the artist he is today?
There are points from this story I want to remember as a leader.
First, my abilities and capabilities are the result of a lifetime of experiences that have shaped me and given me the tools and skills I have. Those experiences were not all good ones, yet they all had the potential to equip me. Those experiences were not all “leadership lessons”, yet they all impact how I lead today. Those experiences were not all chosen by me, yet often the ones I would have avoided if I could were the most impactful.
Second, those same experiences created the lenses through which I view new situations and other people. I cannot undo the bias created by my past, but I can acknowledge it and notice when it is hurting others instead of helping them. The unique way I see things makes me an asset to my team when I am humble and self-aware. The same peculiar vision becomes a liability when I am self-absorbed and arrogant.
Lastly, the first two are true about everyone else. I will always be surrounded by people who interpret the things they experience differently than I will, due to the differences in their path to that point. Sometimes, the things I may assume to be problematic in their past are the very things that have brought out their gifting (like how being a mercenary led to being an artist). Like the women in the ReMerge program, sometimes being given an opportunity, a second chance, is all it takes for purpose to become apparent.
Leadership is about recognizing that the differences in people are what makes our team strong and versatile. Good leaders utilize the unique perspectives of their people to help the team pivot quickly and seize opportunities. Great leaders help those on their team recognize that their gifting lies within their experiences (good and bad) and encourage them to explore themselves to fully realize those gifts.
No one complains that the W12 isn’t any good for a run to the corner store. As a community, we should explore each other’s capabilities and celebrate what we do well. When we do, our people will be happier and more fulfilled, our teams will be stronger and more versatile, and our communities will be welcoming and encouraging places. As leaders, we have a responsibility to help people find what they have been purpose built to do and to support them on their path, because that is The Kimray Way.