Throughout my “quest for knowledge”, I have read a number of books on the topic of leadership. I have read great works by some of the acknowledged experts in the field like John Maxwell, Jack Welch, and Noel Tichy. While these books do an excellent job at providing helpful insights on ways to improve as a leader, they cannot compare to the example set by a man whom I have the privilege of calling my dear friend.
What these books try to convey is that leaders are not born, but made. Through hard work, and with the helpful hints of these guides, (only $19.99 on sale now!) you too can be a great leader. The truth of the matter is that some people are born with a natural ability to bring people together and work for a common cause. I have seen no clearer and more powerful example than the one set by Jason Ritter; a social studies teacher at Legend High School in Parker, Colorado, and also my former Resident Assistant (RA) in Henniger Hall at Western Illinois University.
What’s funny is that the job of RA at any mostly freshman, college dormitory across the U.S. is not really a breeding ground for great leaders. People signing up for that job are asking for trouble, by voluntarily agreeing to babysit 18 and 19 year-olds, away from home for the first time, on a campus of thousands of other stir crazy co-eds. Most often the job of the RA is to plea with residents to keep their music down, and try to keep the arrests and vandalism at a minimum.
Jason took a very different approach to the students on his floor. He started by signing everyone up, within the first week of arrival, for the floor’s intermural softball team. (Which was a little curious to me since I found out later you normally had to present your student ID and sign your name to be on a team). This rag-tag group of Henniger 8 residents, (myself included) none of whom, had they gone to high school together, would have hung out in the same “cliques”, grudgingly took the field for the teams first “practice”.
Without a single star athlete on the roster, except of course for Jason, we very quickly each found our spot on the field and started playing. To Jason, the only thing that was important was that you showed up, and you tried. Of course, this instantly became very easy because you could tell he was having a blast just having “his guys” out there playing ball. At first it was almost comical, because he went full steam, all the time, even while we were just out there throwing the ball around. But, as we found out that we actually had a pretty decent team, we started taking practice more seriously, and began taking a lot of pride in our work on the inter-mural softball diamond. With Jason out there giving it all he had, each one of us stepped up and tried harder, and more importantly, had lots of fun doing it. We lost only one game that semester, and won the championship in what has since gone down in history as one of the all-time great college inter-mural 16″ softball seasons (I’m sure its written out there somewhere).
While I know this may seem like a trivial episode to highlight the qualities of a leader, I can assure you that to me, and the other 10 guys on that team whom I still consider to be my very closest friends, it is anything but. The important result was not decided by the championship game, but best displayed by the photo below, of mostly that same team, taken six years after that fall semester, out in Colorado, on Jason’s wedding day.
What is incredible about the softball story is the fact that a bunch of strangers were placed on a dormitory floor, and Jason, through softball, turned us all into lifelong friends.
The truly amazing thing about Jason’s leadership qualities are that they are so completely natural, so completely a part of who he is. Everyone of us looked up to him as a mentor, a big brother, and also a great friend. He led from within, as a part of the group, as opposed to leading from above, barking orders. No one put in more effort, and no one had more fun seeing all of us succeed. It was empowering to have that kind of leader on your side. He was like the general who was always first to step out on the battlefield, and the last one to leave.
I know the students at Legend High School feel much the same way. See, the curse of inviting a dozen of your friends from Illinois, to stand up in your wedding in Colorado, is that you have thus committed yourself to a dozen return trips, as these friends themselves, eventually get hitched. However, every time he came back in town, he would talk endlessly about his students with such excitement and pride. Student government projects were the coolest thing in the world, and the students working on them did the most incredible job, in Jason’s retellings. The same went for the basketball games and class projects. And listening to him, watching his eyes light up, you had no choice but to be totally convinced. Jason turns the ordinary, into the extraordinary, and changes you in the process. That is what its like for a leader to be committed. That kind of leader makes you want to follow, because you know he is all in, heart and soul, and will do everything he can to help you succeed. I am sure those students will have many softball stories of their own someday.
Even as Jason’s life has taken a tragic turn, his commitment to the people whose lives he has touched has remained strong. Even after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, he has gone to great lengths to help those around him deal with the reality of his illness. It would be easy, and completely understandable, for a person in that situation to lose touch and concentrate on themselves. It takes a hero to post a picture like this, right after hearing, and having to deliver, devastating news.
His advice was to find a way to laugh at yourself, even in the face of difficult times. Unbelievably humbling.
In an article in the local Colorado news, (found here) Jason was quoted as saying that during his eight years as a teacher he never thought of one day as work. I would turn that around and say that in those eight years, I don’t think he ever clocked out. In fact, at a friends wedding in October, in Illinois, which happened to fall on the same weekend as a school dance at Legend, Jason had co-conspired with some students and faculty to arrange a break in the action where he would Skype in and to let his students know he was doing OK, and was sorry that he couldn’t be there in person to celebrate with them. When he was talking about his plot over dinner, it sounded as if he were planning the heist of the century. The effect in Colorado must have been awesome.
Its often said in the consulting world “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” In Jason’s case, you know right away. It is automatic, it is genuine, and it is powerful. The outpourings of support and get-well wishes sent to Jason and his family have been reflective of the support he has shown so many people through the years. His house is literally overflowing with cards, notes, and the 1,000 colorful folded paper cranes from the students of Legend High.
The collective summation of the qualities of an effective leader, as outlined by the leadership experts mentioned above, are as follows: A truly great leader inspires confidence, garners trust, empowers others, believes in the mission and the team, and executes with enthusiasm. A great outline of Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws can be found on this link as well. Reading through these lists, I cannot find a more accurate personification of leadership than Jason Ritter. A self-less advocate, whose impact lasts far beyond the mission at hand. He is not simply a kind soul handing out fish to the hungry, he is the guy setting up shop in the school of fishing, handing people rods and reels, giving them the ability, and confidence, to feed both themselves and future generations.
While I will undoubtedly continue reading books about leadership and many other topics, the most important lessons I have learned come from examples set by people like Jason. If I can absorb a quarter of what he exemplifies, I will benefit greatly, as will those whose lives I touch. That, in and of itself, is the mark of a truly great leader, and a truly great man.
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
— John Quincy Adams