This article is from Issue 69: May/June 2014

The Democratization of Influence

The digital world isn't just changing how we make a difference. It's changing who can make a difference.

It was while living in the ground floor apartment of an orphanage in Kenya that I first became a leader.

Indeed, 170 of the noisiest children I’d ever met served as the backdrop to my shaky foray into leadership.

I had gone to Kenya to climb a mountain. It was the end of a yearlong trip around the world, and I yearned to hike in a country I had long dreamed of visiting. When someone recommended I spend a night at a guesthouse near the base of Mount Kenya to rest up for the trek, I readily agreed.

A nearby orphanage owned the guesthouse, and after an hour in that orphanage, I made the decision to stay. I lived in the orphanage for a year, and I never did climb that mountain.

In the beginning, I led the children. With only three full-time staff members for the scores of kids living in the children’s home, I handily got the job. My primary qualifications? I was there. When I asked the orphanage elders what I should do with the children while I wiled away a year in their midst, they said clearly, “Teach them to run.”

I was a marathon runner, sure, but I was the slowest one to ever be seen around the Kenyan highlands. Any local could outrun me with a bag on his head. This was not a job I was suited for. But once again, my primary qualifications won out. I was there, and the orphanage elders saw that.

The months I spent training 18 teens to run a marathon and holding the hands of the dozens of younger children who ran for the sheer pleasure of the chase turned me into a coach. A leader, if you will. I pointed and directed and orchestrated and executed and inspired. Or at least I tried to.

Along the way, I brought together the athletic and educational programming I was running under the direction of a nonprofit I started: Hope Runs. We ran it from that orphanage apartment, kids screeching and laughing in the background of international conference calls.

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And then, just when I thought I had become comfortable in the one leadership role that had been foisted on me, another one came along.

My leadership—for lack of a better word—grew.

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