The Leadership Advice That Changed My Life

He passed away on my birthday. Of all the days, right? 

Steve Polk was my first business mentor.  More importantly, he became a significant life mentor. 

He led an interesting life. His career took a turn while serving as a Georgia State Patrol Officer. During his time as an Officer, he prevented an assassination attempt by a man trying to kill the Governor of Georgia.  

His quick thinking and leadership skills caught the notice of several state officials and he began rising in the ranks of Georgia leadership.

I found myself working for Mr. Polk shortly out of college. It was a great opportunity from a career standpoint.  It was a far more significant one from a life standpoint.

My first day on the job Mr. Polk brought me into his office and shared three pieces of advice, which would ultimately become the greatest leadership advice I would ever receive. 

“Jeff, here’s the kind of person I want you to be while working for me. First, please understand and live out this truth:  There’s not a limit to what a person can do when he or she doesn’t care who gets the credit.” 

There’s some debate as to who said this statement first. I’ve heard it was President Harry Truman.  Others say it belongs to former Coca-Cola CEO Robert Woodruff.  In any event, the first time I had ever heard it was from Mr. Polk.  It’s an amazing principle that underscores the powerful leadership virtue of humility.  It’s not about us. It’s about us serving other people.  If we can get beyond credit-craving and move toward a greater good for all — then this is where true leadership lives. Mr. Polk didn’t stop there, however. 

“Secondly Jeff, here’s another way I want you to view your work.  Leave things better than when you found them.  This is what great leaders do.  They elevate everything around them and when they leave the situation and the people are better."

Leave things better than when you found them.  In other words, what will the wake of your leadership be?  We are all currently leaving some sort of wake.  It can be destructive.  It can be self-serving.  Or it can leave the people around you better than they were before. This advice underscores another principle about leadership and legacy.  Our legacy will be defined by default or design.    

 This doesn’t happen when you leave.  It happens with how you serve, lead and carry yourself today.  What will your legacy be when you leave your current role?  Mr. Polk’s plea is to leave things better than you when found them.  What’s interesting is that getting to advance in the next step of our careers often comes about when we are maximizing where we currently are.  Is this your attitude in your current situation? 

“Finally Jeff, here’s the other way I want you to view work and more importantly your life.  Live your life as if you really believe it is better to give than to receive.” 

 I’ll never, ever forget how Mr. Polk illustrated this advice for me.  Eighteen months into my time working for him, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  The diagnosis was not good. Because Mr. Polk was both an avid horticulturalist who loved flowers and was incredibly beloved by so many people—his hospital room became overwhelmed with flowers and his family had to kindly ask people to stop sending them. There was no more room.

Knowing this, when I went to visit Mr. Polk in the hospital I didn’t bring any flowers. Imagine my surprise when I walked in and there weren’t any flowers.  Not a single one.  Near the end of our visit, I mentioned to him that I had heard his room was overflowing with flowers. It’s why I didn’t bring any. “So, do you mind if I ask, where are all your flowers?” 

He looked at me, smiled and said, “Jeff, remember. Live your life as if you really believe it is better to give than to receive.  I asked my nice nurses to go throughout the hospital and find people who didn’t have any flowers.  I asked them to take my flowers and give them away to them.” 

I will never forget that moment for as long as I live.  A few weeks later he passed away ‪on March 7th, my birthday.  It’s been 25 years and yet, when I’m asked what’s the greatest leadership advice I’ve ever received, it’s as if it’s been 25 days.  

Of course, the challenge with any advice is: what do you do with it? Advice is simply a collection of words unless you steward them with action.  As the New Year approaches, I hope I can become a better steward of these words Mr. Polk gave me.  It’s a quite a gift he gave me.  And now, it’s quite a gift he gave you.