On Leadership and Living a Below Average Life

Dr. Ben Carson

His mother dropped out in the 3rd grade and then married at age 13. When he was 18, his parents divorced. Growing up in a rough part of Detroit was no plus, either. In effect, he had nothing going for him.

But then, at age 32 he became head of Pediatric Neurosurgery at John’s Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. At 36, he performed the first operation to separate Siamese twins conjoined at the head.

So how does a kid with his history turn around and make history?

The Place All True Leadership Begins

Dr. Ben Carson refused to let a “far below-average” life cripple his walk toward achievement.

Average is contrived, a “fake” number or concept, the middle ground between extremes. What leader wants to be average? We know “average” is for losers. No one says,

“We were so excited to learn that our daughter tested ‘average’ in math! Next stop Engineering School!”

We love to think of ourselves as “above average” because average is boring and below average is downright despicable.

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Leveraging Your Past

Life Below Average Can Make You an Above Average Leader

My leadership and vision become crystal clear at the extremes. We learn how to really live and truly lead at the extremes, and often that means extreme failure or disappointment.

My life is a case study:

  • In my first major swim competition, my coach remarked I looked like I was taking a bath at a retirement home
  • I flunked organic chemistry in college, flushing my dreams for med school down the drain
  • I failed a blood pressure test for my application to the Naval Academy
  • In college English my first writing projects were awful (go figure)
  • Broke my foot just before senior year, losing all hopes to be a regular starter in college football
  • Lost 5 elections to a campus organization, taking second place each time
  • Was virtually fired from a dream job assisting the CEO of a top bank – I say virtually because I quit when I got wind the SVP was about to fire me
  • I failed at fund-raising for a new venture I was helping a team launch, and could not get the organization off the ground
  • Led a discussion group with 4 participants and, in just 6 weeks and with great skill, I was able to grow that fledgling little group to a whopping total attendance of … ONE!  Just me at meeting 6.
  • My first speaking engagement to a large group was a flop and I was raked over the coals by the organization’s top leader

Listen to the wisdom of Winston Churchill.

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts….Success is going from failure to failure, without loss of enthusiasm.”

The Rest of the Story

During each of my decidedly “below average” experiences, I found something far above average was taking shape.

  • My swimming failure led me to football, where I excelled and guided a team to an undefeated season
  • Failing Chemistry kept me from doctoring and thrust me into business and ministry, both of which I have enjoyed
  • Failing a blood pressure exam –only time– changed my educational trajectory from military science toward the humanities
  • My writing disasters led me to seek coaching from an editor, and now I write professionally, and love it  (See how I be a much more better writer? Hah!)
  • Leaving my bank job was the nudge I needed to explore ministry, something I was starting to love but was afraid to investigate
  • In that small group I “grew” from 4 attendees to 1, I discovered the keys to what makes a group or team thrive, and have become an expert in the field
  • My public speaking debacle confirmed my passion for communication but humbled me; I needed coaching and hard work to excel at the craft
  • Initial failures at starting an organization gave me insights for later starting my own business with greater confidence and wisdom

I now realize that living “below average” was a launching pad, not a landing zone, for my leadership.

Leadership Lessons from Being “Below Average”

  1. It can make you work harder when you ought to
  2. Below average work experiences can make you move on when you need to
  3. Below average performance can open your mind to new ideas and catalyze emotional and spiritual growth you otherwise would miss
  4. Sometimes pounding the same nail creates a desire to change nails and leave the carpentry business
  5. Having below average performances does not mean you will become a below average leader; these can be the fuel for greater success
  6. Many below average leaders are just 5 minutes and 1 decision away from seizing an above average leadership opportunity, if they are willing to persevere

Failure is not always good, but it can be useful. This article; “Failing by Design” by Rita McGrath in HBR is very reassuring. A good leadership read.

So how about you? Make a list of your “below average” experiences; they might be the foundation blocks for living an above average life and becoming an extraordinary leader.

Where did failure motivate you? How did disappointment bring clarity to your future? When did you realize that a below average living was actually the seedbed for extraordinary achievement later in life? I would love to hear your story!

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———————
Dr. Bill Donahue
Dr. Bill Donahue is President of LeaderSync Group, Inc

Bill is a professor at TIU and a Leadership Speaker and Consultant
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2 Comments

  1. The other day, I was feeling regretful for some of my decisions that I made earlier on, but then a friend pointed out to me the success I am today had a lot to do with those decisions I made early in life.

    I think many of us would like to relive life again knowing what we know now, but it was those challenges and obstacles that made us strong and who we are today. In hindsight, I would not change a thing.

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    Reply

    1. Bill I could not agree more. As I write this, the person who was renting a home to us in Saugatuck on Lake Michigan reneged on the deal at the last minute, returned our check, and left us with no vacation spot 48 hours before we are supposed to leave. I can only trust that one day I will see this in hindsight as well. All the best!

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