Growing up, I was fortunate to have a collection of supportive adults who made my life richer by providing positive leadership and opportunity. Back then, I was unaware of the ongoing effect they would have on my life, but today, I realize they taught me things I would use and expand on for many years to come.
Before I tell you about some of these folks, I want to acknowledge that my parents made a massive investment in my future. Among many other things, they painstakingly saved money so I could go to a private college, and they made it possible for me to try things I was passionate about. Their decisions allowed me to have mentors who further contributed to my life.
One of the most significant leaders for me was my high school band director. He had a way of treating high school kids like responsible adults. I marched all four years, and I watched older students fill leadership roles like quartermaster, section leader and drum major with aplomb under his direction. He never asked these young people to take on more responsibility than would have been appropriate for their positions, but he did infuse a certain gravitas into their roles by asking their opinions regularly and complimenting them in front of their peers.
I also had a great mentor in my riding instructor who taught me from the ages of 12 to 16. Her barn in suburban Atlanta was a busy place, and there were usually multiple lessons going on simultaneously in one large sand arena. I remember her stopping everyone to clap for a rider who accomplished something challenging. I still hear her loud “Yes ma’am!” today when I put a horse perfectly over the middle of a crossrail or make a smooth transition to canter. I like to pass on this type of encouragement when I see my riding students making a solid effort.
One of my college professors helped elevate my writing to a whole new level. The first time I had her for a class as a freshman, she informed us at the beginning of a 100-level American literature course that she wanted Tiger Woods-level work from us if we were to receive As on assignments. It was an intimidating prospect, and she held us to that expectation, but she did it with kindness. Her comments on my essays challenged me to develop the “why” in any point I made, but she made these statements with the cushion of encouragement. By the time I was a junior, I had been in several of her classes. I knew her expectations, and I thrived as I attempted to meet the bar she set.
I’ve had wonderful leaders in the publishing industry. I remember one of my bosses calmly explaining to me during my first newspaper editor position in my mid-20s how to handle angry callers who demanded to know why small grammar errors had made their way into the paper. One day, I called my publisher, upset at an upbraiding I’d just received, and I was defensive. Instead of piling on the criticism and telling me to put out a perfect product, this publisher acknowledged I was doing my best and explained to me that readers get invested in their local publications. It was because of this conversation that my perception of these callers changed, and I began thanking them for their readership and investment in their local paper.
And of course, you all met John Peeler in a previous column. Were it not for his tireless, red-inked corrections of my early messy attempts at page layout, I probably never would have learned to love the design process.
As I move forward with various endeavors, I think back on the positivity these people brought to my life, and their contributions extend beyond those moments of support to the larger scope of my overall learning process. There are moments where frustration blurs my perspective or I just don’t know the right thing to do. I do, however, have the most gratitude when I find myself in a position to pass on the support they gave me, whether it’s to my riding students and instructors, to my own children or to a stranger with whom I cross paths. I don’t always apply the wisdom correctly, but I’m thankful for the people who saw fit to bestow it on me, and I’m grateful for the chances to pass it on.