What a Homeless Man Taught Me On Authentic Leadership and Trust

I once saw a man in San Pedro, California pushing a shopping cart full of “this and that.” Things no rational person would want. I looked at him with disdain as I climbed from my luxury auto with obvious pomposity. He was unshaven, clothes tattered. The streets were littered with them.

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I edged closer as he spoke with two police officers. Surely he was begging for money rather than work for a living. He began to spray, polish, shine their police cruiser until the car sparkling. When they prepared to pay him, this man resisted until he had inspected his work …. again. The officers stood there quietly as he walked behind one corner of the cruiser and then the next.

I could then see he wasn’t homeless at all. This was his office on wheels. His cart was filled with aerosols, clean towels, and cleansers. Oh, he very well may have also lived out of his cart somewhere. However, I could see a man once down on his luck working his way out of the mire.

I watched him clean cars and then stand back to inspect his work until the customer agreed he was excellent. When I discovered he wasn’t “homeless” but a businessman who had created a niche I was ashamed to have judged this man from my precipice.

What I didn’t realize at that moment was that in a short period my whole life would be decimated leading me to live in my car. Change. It is the universal element molding us to choose forward or failure with a purpose.

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It is a truism we can change our lives by our thoughts. It is also true if I leap from a building fervently exclaiming there is no gravity I haven't changed the reality that gravity exists nor the results of my beliefs however ardent.

Things happen.

I slept in parking lots, in fields. I showered at Bally's fitness where I worked as a fitness instructor. I ate two bean burritos a day. No one knew.

My tolerance was shifting.

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Perhaps the greatest blessing of life is to create a circumstance where we lose what we prize. It is after all rather easy to create positive affirmations, to rise cheerfully each morning when one knows where the next meal is coming from.

My depths of compelled reality created a shift in me. Whether it made me more ambitious I doubt. It did, however, permit me to view people differently. I left my consulting business to teach elementary math and science. A path I would have never imagined.

One man had delved into depression following the death of his wife.

Here is my point. Everyone, I mean everyone the proverbial bum on the street, the high-class socialite has a story to tell. A person driving a Mercedes while indulging in ways detrimental to their soul and body isn't that different than a person pushing a shopping cart. Certainly, not all people on the streets are there because of life's happenstance. Neither are all those who live on the hill. I have lived on the hill countless times. In fact, I do now.

If we arrive with anything less than integrity what have we gained that will last longer than the temporary sway of a crowd cheering what we have amassed? Once those things have dissipated like an aged athlete or have been actor or singer we are alone. And those once-prized "things" have become rusted and useless as we.

Some people below the shadows of our stature are wholly authentic. God's, symbol for us to climb out of our pride into being rather than merely achieving. In the movie "All is LOst" there is a scene where all it takes is one person who cares without expectation. We have not earned the sunlight that touches our brow each day. Nor our next breath. We can give such blessings to one ... and then one more.

All charades no matter how shiny will invariably succumb to the pressures of a crowd that will bow to thing that will matter most. There is no avoiding it.

Now or later. I have taught college, consulted with Fortune 500 firms and yet, what matters most are fifth graders who called me simply, "Mr. Woods."

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I no longer carry my failure as if it is an entitlement trap. I am not a victim. Nor are you. 

You can transform your life if you are not who you want to be. You can become the best parent possible. You can become a stellar employee if you are deliberate. But the one thing you can't more of is time. The time to do make those changes is now. Right now. 

About Jim Woods

Jim Woods is President of Woods Kovalova Group. A global consultancy with offices in Denver, Colorado and Kiev, Ukraine. He speaks and writes on leadership motivation, leadership skills, and leadership behavior. Jim has consulted with Whirlpool, MITRE, Education, and startups to Fortune 1000 firms. To schedule Jim to speak with your organization contact him here.