Leadership Lessons From Maya Angelou

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What I Learned About Life After Traveling with Maya Angelou for Eight Weeks, by Dain Dunston 

I first met Maya Angelou in a hotel in Dallas. The year was 1992 and she was in a room on the fifth floor, with the curtains drawn. They were drawn because she had a fear of heights, and we were meeting in her room because the hotel elevators had floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking the lobby and she couldn’t bear to ride in them. So, we sat at a table in her room and talked.

I had been assigned to produce a series of lectures for her to deliver to audiences of IBM employees. I wasn’t quite sure of the parameters of the assignment. Often, I would write and direct the segments, so I started asking questions about her work and her life. One question I asked was how she would define success. “Success,” she answered, “is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

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I knew we were going to be friends from that moment. I still have that quote above my desk, a kind of north star to tell me if I’m making the right choices about my life.

Maya and I were on the road together for nearly eight weeks, six in Orlando and another two in a resort in Puerto Rico. She spoke twice a week and of course I never needed to write a word for her. She opened with an acapella version of the hymn God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud. Her singing was magnificent, her deep voice booming out over the surprised audience. And then she told the story of her life’s journey, her years of silence after a childhood rape, her time on stage as a calypso singer, forming a dance duo with Alvin Ailey, both as yet unknown, her years touring Europe in a production of Porgy and Bess.

Her output as an artist was astonishing. Most people know her as a poet, but she wrote, produced, and sometimes directed films and documentaries. Maya composed movie scores and wrote songs. She directed and acted in plays, earning a Tony nomination in 1973. She spoke several languages and taught at several universities over the years. And after we worked together, she spent many years in the Nineties giving talks to corporate audiences.

One night, at dinner with IBM executives, Maya revealed two things. The first was that she was allergic to seafood, which was unfortunate because we were being hosted in a fish joint near Disney World. The second thing we learned was a surprise to me. An exec asked who her inspiration was as a writer. As a writer myself, I thought about my influences: the standard list of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac; and then I thought, no, wait, the person who made me want to write was Herb Caen, the long running columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. And that’s when Maya spoke, “Herb Caen,” said. “Because he made me feel that I had a story to share that was as good as anyone else’s.”

In our second week working together, I noticed there was a moment near the end of her talk that seemed to build to the kind of energy that gets a standing ovation, and then as she talked past the point, the energy subsided. After the talk, as we were walking through the backstage hallway, I mentioned this to her and started to suggest a solution. But she drew herself up to her full height (well over six feet in heels) and snarled at me, “Don’t tell your grandmother how to suck eggs!”

She stalked away and I followed sheepishly, assuming I was going to be fired and sent off in shame. But when we got to the escalator, standing next to each other, she looked at me out of the corner of her eye and we both began to laugh. And the next time she spoke, she got the standing ovation.

Our last week together, in a lavish oceanside resort, my wife Jean joined me. After she heard Maya speak, the three of us sat outside together and talked. Maya immediately related to Jean, a former dancer-choreographer turned writer and poet. She was delighted when Jean sang the white church version of Rainbow in the Cloud, and laughed at the bouncy, up-beat tempo. Over the next couple of days, Maya brought Jean printouts of her poetry and of Langston Hughes.

I knew of Maya before we worked together, of course. But I never understood the impact she had on the public until I started walking through airports with her. Not everyone recognized her. But those who did were in awe and approached her the way one might approach the Pope or the Dalai Lama. More than a poet, she was a spiritual leader in the truest sense.

We don’t normally think of poets as leadership models, but in Maya’s case, that’s exactly what she was. She showed the way for so many people, leading by the example of her life and her work. When I was with her, she taught me the value of her theory of success. I learned to appreciate myself and the work I got to do. And from that, and from her example, I learned that if I wasn’t liking myself so much, to change what I was doing and how I was doing it.


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This guest post was authored by Dain Dunston

Dain Dunston has spent 35 years as an advisor and coach to leaders.  He’s a founding Partner at Reservoir LLC, a company led by a coalition of respected executive coaches in the U.S.  Dunston is a frequent speaker on leadership, culture and coaching topics. He has provided speech and executive coaching to companies like Deloitte, General Motors, IBM, BMW, British Airways, Pfizer, Rite Aid, Wyndham Hotels, and many others. He is author of the new book Being Essential: Seven Questions for Living and Leading with Radical Self-Awareness 

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.