Styrofoam Success and a Lipstick Story

What if you could be successful by using the trials of your past?

As a high school and university professor of 30 years, I found it help helpful to use what is called a writing prompt to set the scene for my students to be motivated to write. Today I spoke to a regional Toastmasters Leadership Institute and presented them with a visual – a speaking prompt. It was an old block Styrofoam I found down by the river that would make for a perfect example. It could be either a stumbling block or a stepping stone. I explained that this was a motivator to accelerate “The Leader in You!” I believe this might be beneficial in your life as well.

A real leader is not by title or position or name or prestige. I believe the first requirement of a great leader is that he or she must be a problem solver. What good does it do to call yourself a leader if no one is following?

An example from my teaching days was the “lipstick story.”  The Girls restroom at the end of the Freshman Hall was a point of frustration. Every day after lunch, the mirror was full of lipstick prints in every color under the sun made by ninth grade girls. Each of the teachers suspected who it was but we could never catch them and prove it. We took it all the way to the principal and superintendent because visitors to the school also used that restroom. So the issue was pondered all the way from the top down and NO ONE could stop the mirror kissing! But there was one “leader” they hadn’t consulted – the custodian!

He said, “Bring in those little girls you suspect and I will promise you they will never kiss that mirror again.” When the girls were gathered in the restroom with the teachers, Custodian Fred began his demonstration. “Now you girls watch what poor old Fred has to do to clean these mirrors, and I believe you will never mark them up again!” With rolling eyes and yawns the girls watched on. “Now see this squeegee old Fred has to use. Every day I have to dip it in the toilet and then wash down those mirrors. Then I have to dip it again in the toilet and wash them down again.” Problem solved.  All we knew was that Fred was the best leader and problem solver that day. The mirrors were never kissed again.

As a radio and TV talk show host for ten years, I have had the honor of interviewing and meeting everyone from rock stars to movie stars, authors and business leaders, from prisoners on death row, to the President of the United States. I have found a common thread that I propose to you is a necessity for one to be a great leader: THEY HAVE ALL HAD STUMBLING BLOCKS IN THEIR PAST – JUST AS YOU AND I HAVE HAD, BUT THEY HAVE LEARNED TO USE THEM! I didn’t say they overcame them; I didn’t say they got rid of them; and I didn’t say they just  put them  behind. Successful people have learned to USE them. WHERE YOU HAVE BEEN HURT THE MOST IS WHERE YOU WILL BE USED TO HELP OTHERS THE MOST. Even the book of Genesis tells us “What the enemy meant for harm, God intends for good!”

I have come to believe that the greatest of leaders have become great leaders – not in spite of their past stumbling blocks, but BECAUSE of them! They have learned to not waste the pain! They have a code of ethics or book of rules they have learned to follow. What is your “book” so to speak? We know the all time best seller is the Bible. Moses was given the 10 commandments to use in his leadership of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. But as he came down the mountain and saw them worshipping a golden calf they had made, in anger he threw down the stone tablets and they broke! Then God had to give them to him all over again! They spent the next 40 years wandering around the wilderness when it should have been a two-week journey to the Promised Land. How many of us have wasted year after year because we didn’t follow our own rules? Once they are established, we can choose to ignore “the rules” or break them… but we may not be able to enter the Promised Land either! I want to live in the Promised Land, today! Life is too short not live it to the fullest.

As I came to the next point in my speech, I then redirected them back to the image of the stumbling block. The best leaders remember as many of their own stumbling blocks as possible and build on how they have overcome them in the past. Every time you have climbed the mountain, you must come back to the valley and lead someone else upward. Every time you do this, you get to visit the mountaintop again. But you can’t stay there – that’s what makes a great leader great!

So travel with me back down the mountain to the valley of your past stumbling blocks. Some of you may have been pretty good kids, from good families, following the rules. You may not have as many stumbling blocks in your past as some of us. When I finally began to face my past, it wasn’t really by choice, but desperation. And so I have found it to be so with others heading upward.

As a chubby child, I reached 250 pounds by the time I graduated from high school. I now have lost 100 pounds and help others with weight loss – stumbling block to stepping stone. As a troubled teen I overcame drinking, drugs and running away. I became Teacher of the Year and helped build an alternative school for wayward teens – stumbling block to stepping stone.  T.S. Eliot said, “The hardest of all virtues to attain is humility; nothing dies harder than the desire to think of oneself.”

The older and wiser I grow, the more I realize it truly is better to give than receive. Helping others grow and achieve, and turn their stumbling blocks to stepping-stones is life’s greatest reward. And to whom much is given, much is required. I have been given so much by others through the years, if I have anything to do with it, I will keep giving until the day I give out. Either way I am blessed.

Dr. Debra Peppers, a professional speaker for 25 years, was one of only five inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame upon her retirement from Lindbergh High School. A member of the National Speakers Association, she has traveled to all 50 states and 60 countries teaching others that if she can go from being a 250-pound high school dropout, to Teacher of the Year there is hope for every child and adult. For info, visit www.pepperseed.org

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