What does it take to be a leader?

On Monday, just after a sweet but not too memorable dream, the alarm clock ripped back the shower curtain of my mind with the sound and feeling of that famous scene from Psycho.

As if my very life depended on it I shot my hand out and hit the snooze button.  The red glowing digits loomed before my eyes and the little dot in the corner warned me that I have nine minutes before it all happens again.

Now I could have pulled the switch over just enough to make the warning dot go away but if I did that then there would be no chance of me getting to work on time. I decided instead, as I do every morning, to allow myself just nine extra minutes in bed.

I let my shoulders relax and sink into the cloud of flannel and down that enveloped me.

The ceiling has a stucco pattern and a crack that runs the length of the room. As I inspected it for the thousandth time I thought about what it takes to be a leader.

What makes them tic? How do they find the strength of will to put themselves out on the line like they do every day?

I don’t know if it was our recent celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. that set off this line of thought or if it was the presidential inauguration that got me going. Maybe it was all the hype about Ray Lewis leading the Ravens into the Super bowl.

I watched that last battle against the Patriots with lukewarm enthusiasm for the game but whole hearted love for Baltimore so I was as delighted with the win as anyone.

But I felt the need to leave as soon as the commentators started up the reviews, the sound bites of players and the media press on Ray.

I just can’t stand the televangelist tone of his over acting. I mean I get that he is a great linebacker. Perhaps the best ever but that isn’t because he prays to God every time a camera is pointed in his direction. It’s because he is a brute that lets nothing stop him.

I respect that.

There are many kinds of leaders in the world. Spiritual leaders who give us strength to triumph over evil; political leaders who attempt to resolve the quagmire of our national blunders and responsibilities; community leaders who work on a small scale to accomplish big things, and warriors who kick so much ass that it’s possible for us all to feel  powerful for a moment.

Ray Lewis gets a hug from Commissioner Roger Goodell after playing his last game in Baltimore. (Lewis’ photos by Anne Boone Simanski)

Ray is a warrior. It is not out of character that he would be involved in a brawl that went too far. It’s not out of the realm of the expected that he would preserve himself when push came to shove. It ‘s who he is and it’s who we need him to be when he steps into the arena of the game.

A leader doesn’t have to be a perfect person. He or she just has to have the power to rouse the spirits of others either by example or by inspiration.  Ray does both.

But, as I hit the snooze button one more time I wondered, how does he rouse himself?

There is no question that this man has done more with his career then anyone has seen done before in football. He puts himself through rigorous conditioning on a daily basis. He eats, sleeps and breathes his training.

It is unanimously expressed by his team mates and anyone who knows him that he is also very conscious of how each and every member of his team is doing. He makes sure everyone else is in balance before going out onto the field.

And he makes an entrance designed to stir up frenzy in the stands.

That makes him an excellent commanding General of the team and a pretty terrific showman but it doesn’t make him a pillar of the community.

So, why all the prayers and talk of God working through him? It’s a little hard for some of us to hear. It makes him seem like a self- aggrandizing clown.  It makes us roll our eyes and wish he would just get over himself, be quiet and play ball.

That’s when it occurred to me that if he did those things he might not be quite as good at what he does.

One quality that most true leaders have in common is a complete faith in their own mission in life and a passionate drive to see it actualized.

Ali being interviewed by WBAL-TV's Curt Anderson, 1978, Baltimore, Maryland.
Ali being interviewed by WBAL-TV’s Curt Anderson, 1978, Baltimore. (Wikipedia Commons)

In order to accomplish great things it is necessary to believe in your own greatness. If you lack that personal belief then it is necessary to believe in the greatness of some higher power who has a plan for you.

Muhammad Ali, another great leader in the sports world, once said that if he thinks of himself he won’t want to fight. He’ll think of how it’s going to hurt. He’ll be scared. But, if he thinks of his people, the ones looking to him to show them what they are capable of, then he can go into the ring and be the champion they deserve.

I finally pulled my one leg out from under the covers and let it fall to the floor. As I braced myself for the cold that would sweep me once I pull back the covers I told myself that it would be a good day.

Getting out of bed every morning requires a certain amount of hype for anyone.

The greater the achievement you hope to accomplish in a day, the greater the hype needs to be.

So let Ray believe that God is working through him. If he didn’t then he might hit the snooze button on Sunday and none of us want that.

And think about what Ray Lewis offered to his fans as a bit of advice.

“Don’t let the alarm clock be the only reason you get up in the morning.”

4 thoughts on “What does it take to be a leader?

  • Tom Flynn
    February 3, 2013 at 8:45 AM

    Nancy – Thanks for the reply, I write myself and know with a word count you don’t always get in what you might. I agree that Lewis does some good things away from the field, and despite what I think of his personal character the net sum of what he does, especially in regard to motivating his teammates, is to the good. I would say the same of Lance Armstrong. His ‘Live Strong’ efforts certainly have been of tremendous help to cancer patients, regardless of what I think of Lance’s personal attributes.

    Agreed on Ali. Thanks for the article.

  • Nancy Murray
    February 2, 2013 at 6:26 PM

    Thanks Diana! @ TF – when I limit myself to about 800 words it’s possible to leave out some important things in order to stay to the point. I would have like to have said how Ray has done a lot of positive things for Baltimore. More than most professional athletes in fact. And as for Ali being more spit and vinegar when he was younger – I think we all were. As we get older we learn our own value and power. When that happens we realize that we don’t need all that anger after all. Thanks for your comments!

  • February 2, 2013 at 4:45 PM

    I don’t know much about Ray Lewis, and this is the first piece I’ve read about him with any interest. I often think about what makes a great leader, and what gives people who work tirelessly to make this world a better the the perseverance necessary to achieve those dreams. I like the idea of self-hype. And Ali thinking of his fans. I will certainly think of this piece many mornings when the alarm goes off. Thank you, Nancy Murray.

  • Tom Flynn
    February 2, 2013 at 7:04 AM

    This is a good consideration of Ray; I’m not sure that I agree with it, but it at least is not in the all or nothing vein that often is used to describe him.

    I think Ali is a good analogy as well. With age he’s taken on the patina of a man almost above flaw, but as a very young boy I remember his mercilessly belittling of Joe Frazier as something more than pre-fight showmanship. It was tinged with what seemed like genuine hatred. Later in his boxing career that aspect of his personality did diminish and the better nature of his character came to the fore.

Comments are closed.