In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s the Berlin Wall served as a tangible reminder of the Iron Curtain separating Western democracies from Europe’s Soviet-led Eastern bloc. The East German government had erected the wall in an attempt to halt the country’s “Brain Drain,” in which ever-increasing numbers of prominent citizens were fleeing westward. The barricade stood twelve feet high and four feet thick, stretched nearly 100 miles, and was made of reinforced concrete. Soldiers patrolled the wall from watchtowers, and they had official orders to shoot on sight anyone attempting to scale it. Official documents instructed security personnel as follows: “Do not hesitate with the use of a firearm, including when the border breakouts involve women and children…”
In 1989, due to mounting political pressures, the East German government finally lifted its border controls. Over the following days, elated Germans from both East and West Berlin descended on the once-imposing wall with chisels and sledgehammers. In celebration, they chipped away at the Berlin Wall until they had broken through to one another. The historic breakthrough brought freedom of movement to people throughout Eastern Europe and, in doing so, reshaped global politics.
All leaders go through significant life events during the leadership journey, and these events can initiate breakthroughs that mold and move us. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, breakthroughs reshape the way we approach life. Our world is never the same after they happen. Here are a few of the breakthroughs that have moved me toward my vision.
1) Groundbreaker – This breakthrough encouraged me to start.
In 1974, I sat down with my friend Kurt at a Holiday Inn, and he asked me if I had a personal growth plan. I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know I was supposed to have one. After reflecting on my conversation with Kurt, I came to the realization that I could only add value to others if I had something of value to add. I decided that if I was going to really grow as a leader, I was going to have to grow on purpose—it couldn’t be a hit-and-miss deal. Consequently, each day I began to read books and articles on leadership and to file away the significant stories or principles that I encountered. Thanks to decades of diligent reading and research, I have collected a wealth of content which I now can use to teach and train other leaders.
2) Windbreaker – This breakthrough encouraged me to stand.
After college, I accepted a job as a church pastor in rural Indiana. It was my first leadership position, and I had a grand vision to build a thriving, influential church. However, my salary was only eighty dollars per week, and the church recommended that I look for additional employment to make ends meet. My wife, Margaret, stepped in, and she made certain that the church board understood I was going to be a full-time pastor, even if I only received part-time pay. Then, to allow me to devote my full energies to the church, she took on three jobs: teaching kindergarten, cleaning houses, and working part-time at a jewelry store. Her support and encouragement inspired me to stand firm in my vision. I never could have achieved my dream without her.
3) Chartbreaker – This breakthrough encouraged me to soar.
At the age of forty, I conducted a self-evaluation of my leadership. I had a lot on my plate, and I felt myself beginning to plateau. I was pastoring a 3,500-person congregation, serving as president of a leadership and development organization, writing a book every 18 months, speaking at 400 events annually, and most importantly, leading my family. After reviewing my schedule, I came to two conclusions. First, I could not possibly hope to accomplish more by working harder. Second, any increase in my production would have to come from improving my ability to work through other people. These two realities led me to the Law of Significance: One is too small of a number to achieve greatness. I discovered that by training others to extend my leadership, my influence had the potential to compound exponentially. As I adjusted my schedule to invest more in the leaders around me, my productivity skyrocketed.
4) Heartbreaker – This breakthrough encouraged me to stop.
At the age of 51, I suffered a heart attack. I had been moving at an unsustainable pace, and I had adopted a fairly unhealthy diet, too. The medical emergency motivated me to adjust my schedule and my eating habits. The ordeal served as a powerful reminder that leaders cannot help anyone if they do not take care of themselves.
Whether a conversation with a friend, the compelling example of my wife, or a crisis of health, my leadership journey has been marked by significant moments. I would not be the same person without having experienced the breakthroughs they set in motion. What formative experiences have shaped you as a leader? How did they impact your development?