When I was 16, I found myself in the unusual position of being in charge of the mailings dept team of a large nonprofit organization.

I remember one mailing where, as I was given the request and plans, I saw some problems, so I went to the office of Rob, the dept head who had requested the mailing. I explained the problem and he and I proceeded to brainstorm a solution. After 20 minutes, we felt like we had a workable solution. Rob then called a quick meeting of the other Dept heads involved in the project.

Now to set the stage, there were eight people at the table, each of them a Dept head or someone with technical expertise involved in the problem. The youngest of which was 10 years my senior. Then there was me, the literal "new kid on the block", the 16 year old who could have easily passed off as 14 years old. I was the guy with no credibility, no natural reason why anyone would notice or pay any attention to me or what I had to say. I assumed I would just pretty much be silent in the meeting and that Rob would run the meeting since he had called it.

I was surprised when he started the meeting by saying that there was a problem with the current setup of this large mailing, "but Seth came up with a great solution", turning to me to explain our solution. He could have easily and legitimately claimed credit or used the term "we" and explained it himself. But he did something unusual,
  • He gave me all the credit
  • He gave me all the credibility I needed by calling it a great plan
  • He turned the spotlight over to me, making me the primary driver of the meeting conversation.
This was 25 years ago and I still remember his words so clearly. I would never forget the confidence boost it gave me, the generous way he shared the credibility that he had with someone who had very little.

My teenage years were very unusual. I started working part-time when I was 13, full-time when I was 15, and by the time I was 17, I was putting in 60+ hour weeks and loving it. Along the way, as the need arose, I was promoted to manager over various progressively larger teams, moves that seemed strange largely because of my age. Strangely, the first time I had someone younger than me working for me and it was when I was 19.

As you can imagine other employees were quite skeptical of me being put in charge, My own boss initially didn't think it was possible for me to handle these situations because of my age. But, interestingly, his boss, Dwight the department director, simply said, let's give it a try and see if he can handle it. And so, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool to see if I could swim.

The pressure that was placed on me at a very young age was unusual in our society but, I learned and grew so much during that time, it was invaluable to me.

One of the things I experienced during that short period of my life was a great deal of discrimination based on my age. People would:
  • Dismiss what I had to say based on my age.
  • Tell me I couldn't do things because of my age.
  • Dismissively patronize me as I was trying to get things done.
  • Go around me to talk to my team members because they were older and must be in charge.
  • People I had negotiated large contracts with over the phone would do a double take when we met for the first time in person.
  • People felt surprisingly free to challenge me when I made a statement; making me feel I had to always be on the defensive because it was so easy for them to doubt my credibility.
  • People felt free to talk over me at meetings, or in some cases, barely even acknowledge that I was there.
Today however things are different: I am a 40-year-old, 6 foot 2 inches tall, Caucasian male with a deep enough voice. Professionally dressed and articulate enough that I could go almost anywhere, in almost any situation, and be taken seriously, given the benefit of the doubt and looked up too. It's easy for me to walk into pretty much any meeting and be listened too.

I don't currently deal with that same discrimination that I faced back then because I grew up. but going through it and experiencing it was a valuable learning experience. As you can imagine at times it was difficult but there were these few people like Rob and Dwight who through small acts of support showed empathy and grace, giving me the chance and opportunity that I needed to accomplish what many doubted I could because of my youth and inexperience. They looked beyond what the preconception that others had and gave me a chance to prove myself.

Looking back at what they did makes me wonder about what I am currently doing.

Our society generally ascribes leadership and credibility with some combination of the attributes of tall, deep-voiced, light skinned, older men, who dress "professionally" and speaks articulately. Yes, you can find many, many exceptions, but this is a generalized statement. Rob and Dwight fit those attributes yet they took someone who didn't quite match up to peoples preconceived notions of leadership and used their leadership and credibility to gave him the opportunity to prove himself. They used their culturally accepted credibility and shared it with someone who lacked what they naturally had.

I now live a life where I have leadership and credibility attributed to me, I have gained this through a combination of my own efforts of hard work and things given to me by my DNA of which I had zero involvement. I now have a proverbial seat at the table. What am I doing with it?

Having a seat at the table is great and all, but are you pulling out chairs for others to come and join you?

To quote an overused quote from the movie Spiderman: "with great power comes great responsibility."

You may think to yourself that you don't have any superpowers. You’re not chairman of the board of anything, you don't fit the list of culturally accepted leadership attributes, so you may feel that you need to wait for someone else to come along to help you. DON'T. You, right now, have a level of leadership, credibility, and power. What are you doing with it? Are you sharing what you have and giving a hand up to others by bringing them to the same table and sharing credibility with them so that they can have the opportunity to do what you have done.

There is a scarcity mentality that makes us fearful of giving away any leadership opportunity or credibility building situations because we are afraid that if we give away any of what we have it will mean less for us in the future. Rob, the guy from the initial story, could have so easily and naturally run that meeting by himself, it's what I expected him to do. Instead, he did the unusual and generous thing of putting the spotlight on me instead of himself. I still look up to him as a leader because of it.

I recently watched a short video with Arnold Schwarzenegger. At one point he started talking about being a self-made man:

“I came over here with absolutely nothing. I had $20 in the pocket and some sweaty clothes in a gym bag. Starting out, I had this one little apartment and on Thanksgiving, the bodybuilders from Gold’s Gym came to my apartment and they brought me pillows, dishes, silverware, all of the things I didn’t have. None of us can make it alone. None of us. Not even me, who’s been the Terminator and went back in time to save the human race. Not even me, that fought and killed predators with his bare hands.
“I always tell people that you can call me anything that you want, but don’t ever, ever call me a self-made man. It gives the wrong impression, that we can do it alone. None of us can. The whole concept of the self-made man or woman is a myth. I would have never made it in my life without the help. I want you to understand this because as soon as you know you are here because of a lot of help, then you also understand that now it’s time to help others. That’s what this is all about.”

You have achieved what you have through a combination of your family, your DNA, your birthplace, your time of birth, your environment, your community, your educational opportunities, your own will, desire, and hard work. Some of that you can claim credit for (good for you!), some of it you had handed to you. Despite it being overused, "with great power, comes great responsibility"
  • Who are you helping?
  • Who are you giving a hand up to?
  • Who are you giving an opportunity to?
  • Who are you shining the spotlight on?
  • Who are you bringing into your network or group of friends?
  • Who are you bringing in front of your peers and saying "_______ has a great idea"?
  • Who are you pulling out a chair for at the table?

We were taking a family trip, heading towards Austin, Texas. Due to spending too much time visiting a zoo, we weren’t going to make it to Austin that night, so I told Marie that we were probably going to end up spending the night in Waco Texas, and I saw her eyes light up.

Just a few years ago if you mentioned the city of Waco to anyone over the age of 35 their mind would haved gone to the FBI standoff with the Branch Davidian cult that ended in disaster in the early 90’s. That incident put the city of Waco on the map of people's consciousness.

So I was a little surprised that Marie was excited to stop in Waco until she mentioned that Waco was where Chip and Joanna Gaines were from and where they had their Magnolia store.

Our plans for the next morning immediately changed as we were now going to spend the morning at the Magnolia store. And it quite an experience as it should be.

Magnolia isn't in the downtown district or the shopping district, you go to the middle of the old run-down industrial area where it doesn’t look like anything has been built, or even seriously remodeled, for the last 30 years. Just a bunch of run-down factories, workshops and warehouses; and there in the middle is a large city block that is dominated by two old grain storage silos and a long industrial shop that looks like it was built in the 1940s, along with some other various small buildings and sheds. You could tell that this block was an eyesore within a larger eyesore of a rundown industrial center of a somewhat old and tired town that hadn’t seen vibrant growth in decades.

To my right I noticed a small brick building with the name Magnolia Bakery. Already there was a line out the door and around the block waiting to get in to buy some baked goods. Then I realized that even though we arrived at 9:00 AM on a Tuesday morning parking was hard to find, the empty deserted parking lots of the nearby old factories were being used and still we had to drive a block away to find parking. I saw people directing traffic and people greeting as you walked into the gates of the complex. I finaaly undersood my wife's excitement and I feared for my walled. We had just landed ourselves at the disneyland of Texas

The long old factory remade into a very cool looking store that had left so much of the old industrial feel in place and utilized it to give the store character. One corner brick building redone into a bakery, one shed remade into a seed store for gardeners, another rebuilt into a gardening supply store. The large open area on this city block made into a courtyard with green astroturf to make it a kid-friendly, family play area. I saw swings on the edges, large checkerboards, cornhole games and massive bean bag chairs sitting all over. What a fun place to hang out and play. They even used part of the old half shed with tin roof that they pulled the trucks through to load and empty the grain into the grain elevators, and really creatively, made it into a stage for performances looking out onto the courtyard green, complete with lights tucked up under the tin roof to light the stage. To top it off, the other two walls of this large courtyard were lined with around 16 food trucks, each with their own self contained business.

And destination it was. I did an informal poll of the people that I met there; asking where they were from, answers ranged from Kansas, Oklahoma, Dallas, Lufkin TX, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Kentucky, San Antonio, TX, Houston, TX and we were from Michigan. People were willing to drive early on a Tuesday morning in November. This place was THE place. The destination to draw people to this sleepy little town in the middle of Texas.

This place was a great example of how to run a good business. Their prices were exorbitantly high and people were flocking in to buy. I pointed out to my son how they had taken a clear small glass mason jar (cost maybe $1), put a bunch of wooden matches in it (cost $0.25), put a tin lid on it (maybe $0.25) with a sandpaper sticker on top of the lid, labeled it with Magnolia and called it “jar o matches” and sold it for $15. The store was packed, and I do mean packed. The line wrapped around the block for the bakery and the food trucks were doing brisk business.

Chip and Joanna Gaines are brilliant. Not only did they build a successful home design and remodeling business, but they parlayed that, combined with their fun, authentic, winsome personalities, into a HDTV show that made them not just well-known in their hometown, but world recognized and loved celebrities. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t love Chip and Joanna, their show was incredibly popular, and interestingly, they made the show highlight not just their work but also their hometown of Waco. Giving the broader world a reason, other than a disastrous cult standoff, to think of Waco. Then they used that show and their celebrity status to publicize the buying, restoring and opening a store on what used to be a worn-down wreck of a grain elevator and industrial block.

So, if you have seen the show or know anything about them you know that they are smart, likable, and have done alright for themselves. Good for them.

But what I saw is how they used their celebrity status. You see, most celebrities have great business opportunities pitched to them all the time, where they can take their name, face or voice and endorse someone else's product and make tons of money. Or, the smarter ones build their own brand name then slap that brand name on products from perfumes, clothing lines, sports equipment, and then National or International store chains carry those lines of product converting their nationwide celebrity into nationwide sales. Everyone from Martha Stewart to Kardashians and scores of others have followed this proven formula of successfully building and capitalizing on their celebrity brand status.

But Chip and Joanna Gaines did something unusual, they went local.

They had a National or larger fan base but instead of creating the Magnolia brand and selling it through Target or Amazon they instead created a local store in their favorite hometown of Waco. But they took it a step further, they didn’t just grab the best location in the nicest Waco shopping district, the cool downtown location or go up the road to upscale locations in Dallas next to the Apple store. They took the forgotten, neglected and looked like it needed to be torn down block in the middle of the industrial area that had two perfectly useless grain storage elevators and an old industrial building along with a collection of sheds.

This is a business that seemingly breaks all the ‘location, location, location’ rules.

With some creativity and vision, they bought it, turning it into a collection of stores and small businesses that provide a shopping experience worthy of drawing people from states away and leaving people stamped with the memory of their experience. Shopping and paying $15 for a ‘jar o matches’. They provided employment for a bunch of people in their hometown, they revitalized some of the worst parts of Waco, and you could just start seeing the coffee shops and restaurants, and even a coworking space popping up in the old industrial buildings in the blocks surrounding Magnolia. They made Waco into a tourist destination.

They made a huge impact in a small pond.

They could have just sold products under their brand name at Target and killed it, but they decided to do their own thing, in their own way, in their own town. Maybe they didn’t fully capitalize on their celebrity, maybe they left potential money on the table. But they sure have made a significant, and what I am guessing, long-standing impact on their town. Yeah, I think Chip and Joanna are doing fine financially, and maybe they could have sold through Amazon and made a few more million. Then they could have given those after-tax millions to their local community NFP organizations who were working to revitalize the city and area of Waco, or they could just launch their local business and have that business make the local impact that the community organizations only dream about.

It seems that the vision we are always given for growing a business is to get that business to a regional or national or international presence but what if instead we made a massive impact in our local community.

Behind the businesses in your community are some of the most interesting, enjoyable, and amazing people you’ll ever meet. Getting to know the person behind the display window of a shop, the inspiration behind a unique restaurant, or the driving force behind an amazing service business will open your eyes, and in many cases, even inspire you.

I think of small businesses as the bedrock of our communities. They’re the hidden engine that keeps the community humming and prosperous. Ayn Rand likened them to Atlas holding the world on their shoulders, and there’s a lot of truth to that.

One of the characteristics of bedrock is that you don’t see it. But you do see the small businesses in your community. You see them every day, don’t you? You walk or drive by them. You shop in them. You ask them to do things for you. You know them pretty well.

But do you really? Do you really know them? Do you even care about them?

Take for example Donut City in Seal Beach California, owned and operated for three decades by John Chan and his wife Stella. John and Stella came to Orange County as refugees from Cambodia in 1979. Since then, they’ve worked side by side every morning to serve donuts at their Pacific Coast Highway shop. They’ve become a fixture and a familiar landmark in the area, and, by the way, their donuts are amazing.

Not long ago, clients began noticing that Stella was missing from the shop. When some of them asked about her, they were shocked to discover she had suffered an aneurysm. She was alive, but weak and in rehab, and she was going to be in rehab for a long time. Every day, John did all the work necessary to keep Donut City humming and its customers happy, and then he rushed home to be with her as soon as the shop sold out of doughnuts.

The regulars expressed their concern and suggested to John that they set up a gofundme page to raise money, but John saw no need for it. He was sure that so long as he kept working at the donut shop they were fine financially. He did express his desire to spend more time with Stella to help her through her long recovery.

Those same regulars weren’t willing to let it go. They decided to do something. Through social media and word of mouth they got the word out that John needed to sell out his donuts early every day so he could return to the rehab center where Stella was recovering. They encouraged people to buy a dozen or so donuts on their way to work in the morning. It worked. The regulars did it, and so did the “semi-regulars.” They began stopping by every morning for a dozen or more for the office. John was often able to shut down as early as 10:00 on some mornings and spend the rest of the day helping his wife.

To John and Stella’s customers, it became more than just buying some donuts. In this time of need, they became friends, who were supporting a great couple and a man who needed to spend time with his wife. And they got to eat great donuts. The customers became the champion and marketing arm, not for Donut City, but for John and Stella. Why? Because that’s what friends do. Talk about a win-win.

You’d be amazed at how many of the businesses that you come in contact with have stories like this behind them. I get to hear these stories from the business owners I coach. They feel the weight of the well being of their employees and their families on their shoulders. They could use the encouragement of someone else coming along and, by word or deed, saying, “Hey, I see you, and I appreciate what you do.”

John and Stella were one of these local small business owners whose faces behind the counter became part of the bedrock of their community. When their time of struggle came, their customers decided to support them in the best way they knew how.

That’s what friends and communities do.