What J. Gary Cooper and Miss Black Mobile Taught Me About Leadership

It's a new year. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself reflecting. Take a minute to reflect. Take a minute to think back with me. Who has helped you, encouraged you, breathed life into your dreams? You have someone. We all do. At least one person, probably more.

Besides my parents, one of my dream-breathers was Mr. J. Gary Cooper of Mobile, AL.

He was an influential person who spoke belief, spoke confidence, spoke opportunity into my life. He believed in my capabilities before I could even see them -- even recognize them.

But before I tell you more, have you heard of J. Gary Cooper? If not, you should know...

Photo credit: U.S. SEC

He is an African-American man who graduated from Notre Dame in 1958 -- a history-making event in-and-of itself. He then made further history in 1966 when he became the first black to lead a Marine rifle company into combat. He received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for heroism during the Vietnam War. In 1971, he became the first black officer to command a Marine Reserve unit, a Mobile-based reconnaissance company. He also was the first African-American to attain the rank of General from Marine infantry ranks. After his service in the military, he became a well-respected businessman in Mobile. In 1973, he was elected to the Alabama legislature. In '78, the governor of Alabama named him to his cabinet as the Commissioner of the Alabama State Department of Human Resources. In 1989, President Bush appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Air Force where he played a role in planning the Gulf War. A few years later, President Clinton appointed him as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.

But when I was growing up, J. Gary Cooper was my best friend's dad.

And his touch breathed life into my dreams. Cooper was able to expose me to things I didn't even know existed. For example, the first time I flew on a private plane was because of Mr. Cooper. We flew from Mobile to Montgomery. (Now don't be too impressed, it was just a little crop duster.) But, you get my point.

He allowed me to see past the poverty around me to a world full of possibilities. To a world outside of what I could see in front of me. He opened the door for me to create a new world view.

Isn't that the definition of a true leader? Enabling others to see past seemingly insurmountable odds. To see past the world in front of us. To make our dreams attainable. To breath life into our dreams.

To breath life into MY dreams...

At age 18, I was encouraged to enter the Miss Black Mobile Beauty Pageant. Things were still pretty segregated at that time and pursuing Mobile's Junior Miss pageant wasn't open to blacks. So... Miss Black Mobile it was.

Needless to say, I was nervous. I was scared. I was so in fear of being rejected.

I have come to learn from teaching and coaching others that these are precisely the kind of fears that hold us back. We must learn how to push past our fears and our doubts to move into that space of possibility.

As part of the pageant, I had to go to businesses around Mobile asking for sponsorship money to cover costs that my parents couldn't (like pageant gowns and other items). And J. Gary Cooper was one of my main contributors. He was willing to invest in my future.

And you know what? I won. I became Miss Black Mobile and went onto state where I was a runner-up to Miss Black Alabama.

J. Gary Cooper gave me permission to be first. To do it afraid. To do it trembling with my stomach in knots. Words spoken caringly are a powerful catalyst to unleash talent. And that is exactly what he did.

I cannot tell you how many times throughout my life -- both professional and personal -- I have called on that same wisdom and belief in myself that my parents and J. Gary Cooper had in me. So many people still struggle with being "the first." But we must encourage -- convince -- each other to lean in. Somebody has to be first. Somebody has to break the barriers. For there are still so many to be broken. There is still much work left to be done to give the next generation permission to step out.

We ALL have people who have absolutely changed the trajectory of our lives. One of mine was J. Gary Cooper.

Who were yours?

More importantly, are YOU that person in someone else's life? Are YOU breathing life into someone else's dreams? Whose potential are YOU unleashing? What door are YOU opening for someone else?

And women, a special note to you... It is time for us to open the door and bring more women with us to the table!

Make 2014 the year that YOU are the dream-breather to someone else.

"Success each day should be judged by the seeds sown, not the harvest reaped."

-John C. Maxwell

Oh, and the question that helped me win Miss Black Mobile? When I was asked about fashion, I said, "Fashions will come and go, but you have to know who you are. You cannot adapt yourself to what the world says. (And as I wrote later in Her Corner Office...) Success comes from the inside out... not from outward style or adornment."

I know, right? At the time, I absolutely did not know that was in me.

But J. Gary Cooper did.