(Adapted from You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere Can Make a Positive Difference, Currency, September 2006 release)
Everyone matters. Everyone makes a difference.
I don’t think everyone knows that. Most people grew up being told they could make a difference, not that they do make a difference. As a result, some people believe they can choose to be neutral, making neither a positive nor a negative difference.
In practice, that just isn’t so.
Have you recently encountered a person who didn’t seem engaged? Perhaps he or she seemed wrapped up in his own private world, and you were left with the impression that you weren’t important enough to gain admittance. Don’t you hate to be ignored that way?
If you were to press that person, he might tell you he was simply being “neutral.” He might not have been helpful or interested in you, but he wasn’t doing you any harm.
To me, that kind of rationalization is akin to the bystander at a mugging who chooses not to get involved. The fact is he has acted, in this case negatively, by not getting involved.
In practical terms, neutrality is a myth.
The greatest insult in business or in life is indifference. You can’t engage the world in a meaningful way by being “neutral.” The perception on the part of others will be that they don’t matter enough for you to engage with.
My point is that everyone makes a difference. The choice we all have is whether we want to make a positive difference or a negative one. The important question isn’t, “Did you make a difference today?” The important question is, “What kind of difference did you make?”
For instance, have you made a positive or a negative difference to:
- Your client or customer, who was in a pinch and needed immediate attention?
- Your son or daughter, who wanted you to read to him or her when you were busy preparing for the next business day?
- The stranger on the way to work who said good morning to you without getting a response?
The positive or negative impact you have on each person above vary only in magnitude. The principle is the same. When you choose not to make a positive difference, you almost always make a negative one.
Our actions and behaviors matter more than we realize. What we choose to do can improve, even if only in some small way, the quality of another person’s day or life.
Are you building a resume or a legacy?
Our culture is obsessed with success. We assume that if we become really good at what we do, we will earn the material benefits and accolades that come with success. But Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate, points out that our goal in life shouldn’t be just to “be good,” but rather to “be good for something.”
If that “something” is limited to merely personal success, our impact on the world around us will be limited. To put it another way, don’t confuse resume skills with leadership skills.
The difference between your resume and your legacy is:
- What You’ve Accomplished
- The Money You’ve Made
- The Impression You Leave
- Self Improvement
- What You’ve Contributed
- The Difference You’ve Made
- The Impact You Have
- Helping to Improve Others
Ask yourself, are you building a strong resume, or preparing to leave a lasting legacy?
According to Barna Research, only 1 of 4 Americans has a life philosophy.
Fewer still have a notion about the kind of legacy they want to leave.
Philosophy answers the big questions that underlie all the little questions of life. It literally means “love of wisdom.” The best philosophy affects not just what we think or believe, but how we behave and what we do. Philosophy, by definition, seeks to answer the question, "How should we live?" What I’ve found over the years is that the why is usually more important than either what or how. The why almost always determines the what or how that will lead to success.
It sounds corny to some, but making the world a better place—your home, community, company, country or planet—is what motivates and drives each of us when we act as leaders or as “Freds.” If you see an opportunity to make things better, why ignore it?
How are you leaving your mark in life?
When I first visited the big island of Hawaii, I was particularly impressed with the volcanic rock fields the road we traveled on cut through from the airport to Kona. Hundreds of white stones had been carefully placed along the way, in stark contrast against the black rock of the lava field. These stones spelled out the names of people, and often the date of when they had passed through: "Bob & Sally, 11/88," "Jean, Spring Break '91." It reminded me of what so often happens when graduating classes assault bridges and water towers and graffiti artists practice their public art.
All of us want our lives to be significant, to believe we’ll do something, somehow, that will be remembered. Sometimes leaving a legacy can be as simple as placing stones in the lava. But for most of us, the best evidence we can leave that we passed through life is to lead when we are able, and follow when we can’t. Leadership isn’t a mysterious art practiced by only a select few. It is the daily response of each man and woman who wishes to make a positive difference in the world, and make it a little bit better place as a result of their efforts.
The marks in life we leave—our legacies—are most often left not in stone or steel, in history and politics, poetry or literature, but in the lives of other people.
© 2006. Mark Sanborn. All rights reserved. Please contact us if you'd like to reprint this article.