Ray Jefferson | Leading by example
The leadership consultant on his comeback from a lifechanging event to inspiring leaders with tips on triumphing over adversities
Singapore: Are you striving to accomplish an audacious undertaking, effect a revolutionary change in your organization, reverse a trend, create a new entity or make a fundamental shift in your culture? To do something you haven’t done before? Ray and his team will help you succeed.”
Sounds like a hyperbole?
This is the pitch that Ray Jefferson makes to his clients, some of whom are among the world’s most well-known chief executive officers (CEOs).
In a world flooded with leadership gurus, Jefferson stands apart as someone who has defied the odds and lived the life to earn the right to make the statement above.
He has not come out fully intact, at least not physically, but has bounced back from a life-changing event, to achieve greater success and inspire other individuals with techniques to triumph over life’s adversities.
“What happens when someone steals your awesomeness and it is taken away suddenly, unexpectedly,” asks Jefferson. “When you are in the midst of living a life full of purpose and suddenly it all explodes, literally and metaphorically.”
On 18 October 1995, in Okinawa, Japan, Jefferson, a graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point, was serving as an army officer in the special forces (Green Berets) as an A-team leader. On this fateful day, in a freak accident, he lost all five fingers on his left hand when he attempted to protect his teammates from a hand grenade that detonated prematurely. He says that although that one incident changed his life, he never once regrets making the decision he did under extreme stress and adversity.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday. I had the privilege of leading a special forces A-team and we were going out to the range to do classified mission training with all my men,” Jefferson recalls. “There was a defect found unexpectedly in the hand grenade and within two seconds I had to make the most critical decision of my life as I realized it was going to detonate any second.”
Jefferson says survival instinct kicked in first and he turned around to throw the grenade away from him. However, he realized within the next two seconds that he had nowhere to throw it without hurting his men and his teammates.
“I had an epiphany. No matter what happened, I would not hurt or harm anyone,” he says. “And as I had nowhere to throw it, I put the grenade on my thigh, put my hand around it, closed my eyes, and just waited. Time stood still for a few fleeting seconds, before the grenade exploded.”
He adds: “It felt completely surreal to be in that moment of decision making and go through it knowing what was coming. And yet knowing that it was the only moral choice I had as a leader, made things simpler.”
This, he says is one of the key lessons he draws upon in engaging with CEOs and senior leaders on transformational leadership. “Take the time to know who you are deep down inside, and what you really stand for. Then, no matter how big the opportunity or the crisis, never compromise on your values,” he says.
As the grenade exploded in his hands, Ray’s three fingers evaporated and two were left hanging by a string.
The aftermath was not easy for a young man who was on the rise, and at the peak of his mental and physical performance.
“I remember saying to myself. Just grab your pistol, put a bullet in your head, and end all the pain that lies ahead, but something held me back”, says Jefferson. “Hope. It is the most powerful motivator. It will not let you give up on yourself even when you really want to.”
For the next six months, Jefferson went through excruciating surgeries and recovered slowly in a hospital in Hawaii. His life and career as he knew it was over and he felt dismal about his life ahead. “I could not even tie my shoelaces, what could I convince myself to really do?”
In those darkest hours, his father handed him a book on Colin Powell and inspired him to start a new life with the example of this unique African-American leader. The book struck a chord with Jefferson. He took its advice, and did something remarkable for someone recently injured and disabled: earned a masters degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, graduating with distinction as a Littauer Fellow.
Not satisfied with that, Jefferson also earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and was recognized with the Dean’s Award for exceptional leadership and service.
He considers his former professor, India-born Nitin Nohria, now Dean of Harvard Business School, as one of his key mentors in life.
Upon graduation, Jefferson was selected as a White House Fellow and worked as a special assistant to the US secretary of commerce. Soon, thereafter, he also served as a Fulbright Fellow in Singapore, where he studied leadership within Asian contexts.
“Singapore is one of the most remarkable countries in the world today because of its exceptional leaders in all three fields: politics, policy, as well as business,” he says. “Very few countries have excellence in all three fields. This is what fundamentally has enabled the country to transform from a third-world country to a first-world nation in remarkable time. Leadership.”
After returning from Singapore, Jefferson got the opportunity to go back to Hawaii and serve as the deputy director for the state of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), where he co-led the organizational transformation for a department of over 230 team members with an operating budget of $182 million.
Later in his career, he was also the Senate-confirmed US assistant secretary for veterans’ employment and training under President Barack Obama.
In 2003, as luck would have it, Jefferson was selected by the man who inspired him in a profound moment of crisis, former secretary of state Powell, as one of two inaugural recipients of the Harrison H. Schmitt leadership award for Fulbright alumni in recognition of his achievements and contributions in the area of public service.
“I was deeply humbled and inspired by him yet again,” he says.
For more than two decades now, Jefferson has helped companies and government agencies around the world build leaders, achieve breakthrough results, and create an empowering environment through his leadership roles as well as by creating and delivering unique training and development programmes that emphasize transformational leadership.
“Ray captivates the audience with the story of his own journey and remarkable achievement in the face of daunting adversity,” says Joseph McCarthy, associate dean and director of degree programmes at Harvard University.
This is perhaps the key to his success. Today, Jefferson is one of the most highly regarded leadership consultants globally and now spends most of his time in Singapore.
“Nothing inspires me more than helping others achieve their full potential and learn never to give up in the face of adversity,” he says. “I am grateful that life has offered me this opportunity and gift to give back.”
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Why has leadership development become such a big field in the last decade in your view? Almost all companies now engage with it. Why?
Companies have realized that talent is the engine that drives performance, outcomes and results. It’s both the facilitator or enabler, as well as the constraint. Developing team members’ abilities to lead themselves and others is a key component of actualizing an organization’s potential.
Is there an Asian leadership model? If so, is it different from the West and if so, how?
Leaders today in the world’s premier organizations are having educational and professional development experiences beyond their borders, in the global arena, and are interacting with peers and colleagues from diverse backgrounds in the process. Asians are studying at Ivy League schools in the US and Oxford in the UK. Americans and Europeans are doing Fulbright fellowships and other exchange programmes in Asia. Talented professionals are working in professional service firms, global banks and companies, and NGOs... As a result, what’s emerging is a blended or fusion style of leadership. It reflects cultural and environmental backgrounds while being influenced by global best practices and emerging “next practices”.
How do you teach an abstract subject like transformational leadership?
First, I pick clients who are truly committed and have a desire to do something remarkable with their own lives and with the lives of others. Then the essence is learning what a client’s needs are—the “head, heart, hands and habits” that it would like to develop within its team members, the audacious aspiration it’d like to achieve. Then, I create a customized approach that is multi-dimensional in nature—it engages participants intellectually, emotionally, physically, moral-ethically, technically and spiritually. After all, it is their highest self or human spirit, which answers their existential questions of: “why is this important? how do I make my life meaningful?” This is the core of my training and once I am able to tap into this core, the results become inevitable.
What is the core value proposition of Singapore as you see it professionally and why did you choose to make this home and not the US?
It’s a dynamic, diverse, global hub with endless opportunities for working with the world’s leading organizations that are located here. Additionally, it’s an excellent locale to call home and from which to work in other Asia-Pacific nations and beyond. It is really unparalleled in how it blends diverse and exciting professional options, with quality of living, that makes one instantly a part of the global economy both in Asia and the West.
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