What All Great Leaders Do (And Now It’s Your Turn)

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Imagine a house outside of space and time. I picture a nice three-story Victorian house— burnt red with white trim. The front door is yellow. And it has one of those spires, as every imaginary Victorian house should have.

In the parlor, Johann Sebastian Bach is sitting at the piano, not playing anything. Just sitting there. Just like he always does. Over lunch he talked of his love for music and his almost mathematical fascination with bringing melodies and counter-melodies together. Yet here he’s sitting silently, so afraid of the notes that he might play that his fingers never touch the keys.

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, Leonardo Da Vinci has locked himself in a closet. He’s painting in there— we think. But we’re not totally sure. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing in secret. No one sees it. Ever. All we know is there’s a door and he goes behind it for a while, and then comes out. Sometimes he talks about it. He makes vague references to techniques and theories that he’s developing. But we’ll never know what they are.

Martin Luther King Jr. sits at the kitchen table, pen in hand, writing a speech or sermon that no one will ever hear. He’s been spending his time sitting there every day, writing. And every time you ask him what he’s up to, he simply shrugs and says, “Oh nothing.” He’s not interested in sharing his work.

As you explore, you find many other great women and men— all the people that have shaped your world. They’re all in this house going about their life’s work, yet not sharing any of it.

Can you imagine it?

A world in which Bach never laid the foundations of western music? A world in which Da Vinci— if he did paint the Mona Lisa — never told anyone about it? A world in which Martin Luther King Jr. never shared his dreams?

What a different world it would be— their names would be meaningless and the beauty that they created would go unknown.

It takes imagination to think of great leaders like this, because we know them to be quite the opposite: prolific and open. We can google a name and find the things that person created: books, talks, videos, art, institutions, and whatever other mediums they used.

Now remove the people you admire, and put yourself in this house. This is often where we live— full of potential, ideas, dreams, desires, and vision, yet scared to share it. Afraid to risk being seen, criticized, and rejected.

It’s so much easier to stay anonymous than it is to stand up for what you want to create in the world.

We say it matters that our voices be heard, but we allow ourselves and others to hide and play it safe.

We’re afraid of what our families will think about the work we want to create or the music we want to make, so we’re timid and shy with it.

Do this with me: choose a great leader, artist, or hero. Now ask yourself: were they afraid of what people thought about them and their work?

The answer is yes. Yes. Yes! Of course. And did everyone love everything they did? Absolutely not. It’s not possible.

So what’s more important, MLK’s legacy or that his friends may have had concerns about him? DaVinci’s flying machines or his siblings feeling jealous? Bach’s prolific catalog or the fact that his friends didn’t really “get him”?

The imaginary house is old. You didn’t notice it at first, but it’s unkept and dilapidated. Brown stains on the ceiling show the leaky roof. The floor boards squeak and bend. The doors are barely holding to their hinges. The wall paper is peeling. The sinks drip brown water. And the windows don’t get close to stopping the draft.

A sign above the door reads: “The home of fear and timidity.”

It’s time to leave this house. It’s not a good place for you. Your heroes didn’t live here, and neither should you.

Come out and into the sun.

It’s time to speak your truth, because it deserves to be heard.

It’s time to go public with your private project. It’s time to take action on finding or creating your dream job. It’s time to let yourself be the person you were made to be, with all your goodness and all your difficulty.

Come out and play. Show us your work. Show us what you have to make. We want to see you.

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 8 Comments On This Post.

  1. Dan! Super encouraged by this post!! I have been thinking about a lot of these same things recently. I started a new blog, and the first couple posts haven’t gotten the “results” I was looking for, so everything in me wants to shut down and stop posting. It’s easy to convince myself that what I have to share isn’t good, or that people don’t care. But recently, I really have been resonating with something that Jon Acuff wrote about bravery. He says bravery has two parts. The first, actually doing something. The second, sharing it with others. I’m trying to be brave in the second part right now.

    • Thanks so much for reading and sharing, Danny. Keep sharing. It’s so important. Create a habit of sharing and make that the goal, not how many people read it or respond (though I know how good it feels when people do!).

  2. Ho boy, feeling this intensely right now. Thank you, Dan. I’m definitely glad you stopped working for me and started working for all of us.

    • Haha. Thanks Marty. It means a lot. I’m grateful for my time working for you, 100%.

  3. Steven

    Dan! I’m glad to say that you can consider yourself as a neighbor kid, who comes over to that house with slingshot and dirty overalls, who invites those inside of it to come out and even to come over… for sandwiches, for pretend, for play!

  4. Diane

    Just what I needed to hear today. It has hit me hard. The illustrations that you gave are vivid and wonderful to imagine when I feel fearful to move forward. Some of the art and writing that I am working on have come from childhood memories and as I was sitting here pondering my next project, I read this! I immediately saw a house with many rooms….and I wrote this.
    “In a house there are many rooms. If one closes their eyes and tries to imagine each individual room, it would most likely be one drawn from memory. If given prompts as to what is to be looked for within the rooms, a snapshot of the imagination may reveal something heart warming, or possibly heart wrenching. Wandering from room to room begins to write a story, draw a picture or sing a song. Life, memories, stories spoken, all create. Look inside a room and choose one thing to embrace; walk out with it, make something from it, and then share it.”

    • Love it. Thanks for reading and sharing, Diane! So glad to be an encouragement. Keep creating and sharing!

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