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A Leadership Wish: Eddie Murphy Please Host SNL

As seen on Forbes

A Lesson In Why Leaders Should Embrace Their Natural Gifts

We all are born with amazing, God-given gifts. But many of us drift away from our talents to pursue grown-up paths and monetary rewards. This article is about what happens when you decide to reengage with your gifts that shined brightly when you were young. Hint: Good things happen.

This column is about you. But to get there, I need to spend just a minute talking about me.

In April of my sophomore year in college, I got caught doodling in class—AGAIN—thus continuing a lifelong pattern of being busted by teachers who were desperately trying to right my path.

But this time it was different. This time I wasn’t caught “misbehaving” by a frustrated algebra teacher. Instead, it was by an internationally respected watercolor artist named Professor Zimmerman who snuck up behind me.

I admired his abilities and worked hard to get into his class as an elective while pursuing a design degree. So when he caught me doodling—yes, I was actually using a paintbrush and watercolors to cartoon—I reflexively began a stammering apology for daring to paint a cartoon instead of a landscape, portrait or some other more traditional subject.

Professor Zimmerman held up his hand and stopped me with a smile. He said, “I didn’t know you were a cartoonist. I wish you had told me earlier in the semester. Cartooning well is difficult, and you’re not bad. Why don’t you work on cartooning from now on, and I’ll help you if I can.”

I was absolutely stunned. I was also grateful.

It’s funny how the smallest remark can change your path. For some reason, having a “real” artist tell me I had talent made all the difference. It was on that day, I discovered that something I found easy and natural was rare and special, and I started using cartoons to express my ideas publicly, whether I was in classrooms, speaking at conferences or, eventually, in boardrooms.

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Professor Zimmerman’s perception and kind words literally changed my life. I wonder if actors would respond the same way if they received the same sort of comments. Here’s why I ask:

Recently, Saturday Night Live televised its 40th anniversary show. It was a brilliant reunion of some of the most talented and revered comic talents of our time including Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Dana Carvey, Tina Fey, Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy. The show was watched live by 23 million people and by millions more through social media.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Murphy is the greatest of all living Saturday Night Live performers—ever. On the list of 141 cast members, John Belushi is the only person who surpassed Mr. Murphy in talent and impact, the magazine wrote. So it was with appropriate respect and admiration that Chris Rock introduced Mr. Murphy, glowingly describing him (Growing up, I wanted to be Eddie Murphy; every few years the press builds up a new comedian with the phrase “the next Eddie Murphy.” There is no next Eddie Murphy. He is the only one.), to which Mr. Murphy responded with an uncomfortable look and extended thanks, and then the show cut to a commercial break.

Cue the buzzkill music.

While some former SNL performers like Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell seized the day and had a blast, Eddie Murphy looked like he had just been caught doodling in a painting class. He looked awfully uncomfortable at the thought of embracing his gift of being funny.

What about you? Have you learned how to embrace your natural gifts? Doing so or helping a teammate with a challenge can be transformative.

The Precedents Are All Around Us

What do business titans Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have in common with actor Matt Damon, poet Robert Frost, composer Cole Porter, musician Bonnie Raitt and tennis star James Blake?

Answer: They all dropped out of Harvard to pursue their gifts.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about innovation called Free The Idea Monkey…to focus on what matters most! Working with clever business partners, I got the “real” business book out of the way with my first attempt: Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox, a book about the innovation process meant to provide a road map for innovation leaders.

With the serious book done, I decided to get back to my roots and do some doodling inside of Free The Idea Monkey. (After all, who doesn’t want to see some cartoons in a business book?) While the brilliantly gifted Wes Douglas drew most of the illustrations, I drew some of them as well. You know what I discovered? Professor Zimmerman was right; embracing my gifts makes a positive difference, whether it seems professional or not. Small wonder that the book with the doodles Wes and I did far outsold the serious one.

So what about you? As a leader, do you still find a way to grow the seeds of brilliance that were planted in you when doodling, dancing, singing or stand-up comedy felt like the right thing to do? If not, here are four questions to consider:

  • Which of my talents are people most impressed by?
  • When do I feel most alive?
  • What do I feel pulled toward; what is my purpose?
  • What makes me feel strong?

From there, here are three ways use your gift:

1) Make It A Hobby
Two of my friends, David C. Baker and John Drury, are avid and gifted photographers. They are also highly regarded consultants.

Unlike me, they intentionally separated their (photographic) talents from their day jobs. In David’s words, “The moment I start getting paid for photography is the moment I stop enjoying it. It becomes a job. I want it to be a love.”

2) Join A Nonprofit
You may notice that senior leaders are often on nonprofit boards. You may also notice that they are willingly engaging talents that they don’t get to apply at work any longer. As you watch them help build marketing strategies, growth strategies and financial strategies—not their day jobs—I assure you they are getting as much personal benefit as they are contributing.

3) Embrace The Fear
I suspect that many of us are afraid that when we choose to step under the spotlight again, we may not have the talent anymore. I’m not sure whether it was shyness, a bad break with SNL, ego or just that live television is a distant memory that kept Mr. Murphy from taking the mic. But I suspect that if he let down his guard, he would find the experience energizing, regardless of his concerns.

“When you engage in a work that taps your talent and fuels your passion—that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet—therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.” —Stephen Covey

The world needs more passion. The world needs more smiles. So please, Mr. Murphy, go back to your roots. After all, you’re Gumby, dammit!

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