Thursday Thoughts on Leadership: Leaders Help You Find a True Purpose in Life

Yesterday morning Tom Tognoli, John Thompson and I were guests of Intero Los Altos agent Andy Wong at a prayer breakfast where the guest speaker was Joe Ehrman. After spending 13 years in professional football, Joe is coaching high school football at Gilman High School in Baltimore, Maryland, but that is not all there is to his resume. After retirement, Joe became an inner city minister in East Baltimore, co-founded a Ronald McDonald House for sick children, and launched a racial reconciliation project called Mission Baltimore and serves as President of a national organization that supports abused children. This is a giant of a man in every sense of the word; a modern day St. Francis of Assisi with muscles. Joe not only knows what his purpose in life is, he helps thousands find their true purpose. This All-American Tackle at Syracuse University, where he also lettered in lacrosse, was called “The Most Important Coach in America” by Parade Magazine for the work he does to transform the young men who play for him and the culture of sports. Joe has an entirely different view of sports and coaching. He doesn’t focus on victories (although with three undefeated seasons under his belt, he could). He focuses on developing young men that will be leaders in their communities. Perhaps it is because he goes all the way back to the initial definition of the word “coach.” In England during the 1500’s a coach was a horse drawn carriage with the specific purpose of transporting a person of importance from where they were to where they needed or ought to be.

Four hours before each game, the Gilman players file into a meeting room not to prepare for a game, but to prepare for the rest of their lives. They do this in a program called Building Men for Others 101. The boys are taught that they will ultimately make the greatest impact in life by learning the value of serving others and basing their thoughts and actions on one simple question: “What can I do for you?” They are also taught that they must allow themselves to love and be loved in order to build and value relationships. They also learn to practice the concepts of empathy, inclusion and integrity by “accepting the responsibility to lead courageously.” Finally, each player is asked to develop a cause beyond themselves, so that they may leave the world a better place.

During each football season, every player is asked to write an essay on how they want to be remembered. Before their biggest game of the year, they each have to stand before their teammates and read it to their teammates. They pick a topic or theme that they have devoted their lives to like, ending educational inequalities, fighting poverty, racism or ant-Semitism. Beyond the winning or losing, having his players stand before each other and dedicating themselves to these issues is the real pay-off for Joe; sending citizens out into the world that will make a difference.