Have you ever known someone with an uncanny ability to influence, never quite figuring out what they possessed that gave them such power?
Have you ever worked with someone who held no college degree, no formal title, and no aspiration for leadership, but who demonstrated greater influence with team members than many with the title of leader?
Ever wonder what secret ingredient they held?
I can list a host of traits that contribute to the power to influence. But, in listening to the most recent political debate by Republican presidential candidates, I was reminded of a quality that many overlook. One of the candidates asked that the camera be turned on the audience instead of on him as he spoke. He stated that the American people were less interested in hearing candidates talk about themselves and more interested in hearing candidates talk about what they would do for the American people if they became President of the United States. Regardless of how viewers felt about that candidate, his point was well taken. To win the hearts, minds, and votes of the American people, a candidate must keep the spotlight where it belongs: on the well-being of the people to be served.
Allow me to illustrate using a simple but powerful example of the influence reserved for those who know where and how to shine the spotlight.
My father-in-law, Ed Wieringa, died on a Wednesday. He was a simple man, never prone to put on airs, always paid cash for everything, and was fond of telling stories to his children to teach important lessons. A favorite family story is about the time he told his children that he was worth $9 million. When they asked how he made $9 million, he replied, “Well, I’ve got nine kids and every one of you is worth a million dollars to me.”
Ed Wieringa never went to college, never ran for office, and never held a position of leadership. He was a famer his entire life. He and my mother-in-law Katie raised nine children, all upstanding citizens. After he died unexpectedly at age 97 while sitting in front of his TV set watching a Detroit Tigers baseball game, an entire community mourned.
His memorial service was held in a local high school cafeteria/gymnasium as a room of ample size was required for the large number of people in the community who turned out to pay their last respects to a man they all loved.
My husband Bill gave the eulogy, followed by his eight siblings who each stepped to the microphone to share memories of their father. Grandchildren also came forward with their own recollections of their grandfather. Everyone’s tribute was touching and heartfelt, but one grandson, Chris Wieringa, captured the essence of the man like no one else. In his own words, here is what Chris said:
Any Wieringa born before 1980 knows all too well about selling sweet corn on the corner of Grandpa’s farm. They also know how long, hot, and BORING that job could be in the dog days of summer. One day when I was about ten, I was selling corn with my two sisters and two female cousins. I grew tired of the tedium and listening to four girls being girls when I noticed Grandpa on his tractor across the field raking hay.
Off I galloped across the soybean field that separated me from the hay field, an arduous task in itself. When I arrived, Grandpa noticed me and brought his tractor to a halt. I climbed onto the backend of the tractor, standing on the axle next to the spinning brake rotors. Grandpa resumed his work. After a round or two, Grandpa, who had put some thought into the subject, said, “You want to try this boy?” Bear in mind that at ten years of age, my mother wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about me being around farm equipment. If she knew I was on that tractor, she would have been…. Well, let’s just say she wouldn’t have liked it.
So I climbed into the seat, and the first thing I noticed was that my feet didn’t reach the floorboard. Grandpa assured me that that was okay because it had a hand clutch, and I could stand up if I had to. So he took two or three more rounds to teach me the ropes, and when I reached a turnaround, he said, “You do the rest of them. You’re doing fine.” Without another word, he jumped off the moving tractor, made one of his quick side steps to avoid the oncoming rake, and headed for the house.
At first I was scared out of my mind watching him head off across the field, but then it hit me—I COULD DRIVE. He taught me to drive, and I was ecstatic. From that point forward I drove everything with a motor, and I wasn’t a bit afraid of any of it, a fact that caused my parents, and most of my uncles, to grow several gray hairs.
There was just something about the man. When Grandpa was around, I wasn’t afraid to try anything, even the bad ideas, unfortunately. He was made of iron and some of that rubbed off on me. To a ten year old boy the world is a place filled with people telling you what you can’t do. In Grandpa’s world, the only reason you couldn’t do something was because you hadn’t tried. After all, whatever it was you wanted to do, he’d probably already done it. Just ask him.
Now, some folks who weren’t raised on a farm in the presence of “Iron Man” might ask, “What would possess a man to leave a child alone on a piece of farm equipment that was so old as to pre-date many safety features?” Personally, I didn’t care. I gained more courage that day than can be measured, and after raking the entire field and taking three unnecessary laps learning how to stop the tractor, I felt ten feet tall.
The motivator for Grandpa? Well, as I discovered years later, a Detroit Tigers doubleheader was being broadcast on TV that day, and he wanted to watch it. It is, however, important to note that Grandpa did give me the best piece of safety advice I ever got even though it doesn’t play well during OSHA inspections. It was simple and to the point: “Don’t put your fingers in there, Dumbass.”
Fate, they say, is fickle. But fate threw me a bone last Wednesday. I got to see Grandpa that morning. My daughter Cheyenne got to play with him one last time, and when the hay bales were in the barn and the door was closed, we left. Cheyenne gave him his customary high five, and he waved and nodded to me, as was his way.
That moment was worth as much to me as the day I learned to drive that tractor. If there was one thing I could change about that day, I’d do more than wave. I’d say thank you. Thank you for teaching me to drive. Thank you for making me feel like I could do anything I wanted to do. Thank you for the iron in me that I got from you. Thank you for simply being there to pick me up. Thank you for being my hero—and, mostly, thank you for never telling my mom about me driving that tractor that day. We’d have both been in big trouble.
Ed Wieringa was a man of genuine influence. Leaders at all levels could learn from him.
Here are just a few of the many leadership lessons Ed Wieringa taught through his power to influence
with words and actions:
- Assume people are capable – you’ll be amazed at the confidence you’ll develop in others.
- Mentor others to greater success.
- Eliminate “can’t” from your vocabulary. Negativity never encourages growth.
- Teach others by showing them how to do a job correctly, watch them do it correctly, then get out of their way and let them do it. This builds both confidence and competence.
- Don’t be afraid to fail (or allow others to fail). It simply provides an opportunity to do something again, only more intelligently.
- Be an encourager.
- Keep things simple.
- Communicate clearly.
- Make sure the work gets done before taking time to play.
- Be grateful for your blessings.
- Bring out the best in others and reap the rewards.
- Look out for others’ well-being.
- Remember, some things are best left unsaid.
Albert Schweitzer captured the source of power Ed Wieringa had to influence when he wrote: Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing. Through his words and actions, Ed shined the light on others, helping them develop themselves in the process.
Want to become more influential? Keep the spotlight where it belongs.
(c) 2015 Mary Jane Mapes