What Today’s Leaders Can Learn From One Professional Cheerleader and Three College Students

What Today’s Leaders Can Learn From One Professional Cheerleader and Three College Students

People often ask me to name the leaders who have inspired me the most in life. When I think about the unique qualities they possess, one trait that is consistent among them is how they get others to act, not just spectate, and join their cause. The leaders who have inspired me all have the ability to harness the energy of a diverse group of people and channel it towards a shared goal or vision. Many of these inspiring leaders are well known –Mandela, Gandhi, MLK Jr., JFK –but there’s one person I invariably bring up, who, more often than not, is met with a look of intrigue and curiosity, if not confusion.

“Who is Krazy George Henderson?” they ask. I smile. They may not know him by name, but I’m certain they’ve personally experienced the reach of his leadership.

The short answer is that Krazy George is a professional cheerleader who has been riling up crowds for 40 years. The longer answer is that he introduced the model of leadership the world needs today, one we are increasingly seeing in the next generations, especially millennials.

This year, I made sure to invite George, along with other leaders from business and society to the reception my company LRN hosted for the Elie Wiesel Foundation Prize in Ethics Essay contest, where we celebrated an exceptional group of young, up and coming leaders. You may not expect Krazy George to blend in so naturally at a select gathering instead of a 40,000 seat sports venue, but the thing I hope people understand about Krazy George’s style of leadership, and why it’s so important to revisit today, is that it’s about connecting with those around him, from frenzied sports fans to aspiring professionals committed to making a difference.

This year’s winning essays by college seniors Alexandra Stewart, Andrew Meuller, and Andrew King all have something in common with others of their generation like Malala YousafzaiSarah Kavanagh, Martha Payne and Trisha Prabhu who understand something about how the world works today. More than that, they are showing us the way. These young people know that Formal authority, the power to command and control, is decaying and dissipating. Moral authority, which connects and collaborates around shared values, is gaining potency and currency.

Myself, Andrew Mueller, Andrew King, Alexandra Stewart, and Elie Wiesel

If you think of leadership this way and think about it metaphorically, you can adapt and apply this same inspirational style and make it your own. Let me give you an example of one of its most powerful and potent forms.

The day was October 15th, 1981. It was Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees, and the score was tied 0-0 at the bottom of the 4th inning. That’s when Krazy George Henderson, armed with only a drum and a vision, whipped up the crowd and invented something incredible.

Here’s what he told me when I interviewed him for the first chapter of my book HOW back in 2007.

“First thing, I hit my drum. That focuses everybody within three to four sections of me. It’s the secret to why I am successful. See, the drum shows energy and emotions; it shows I am personally involved with the fans.”

Suddenly, the cheering of the crowd grew louder. Above the roar, the frantic beating of a single drum could still be heard.

“ Here is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna stand up and throw our hands in the air. I want to start with this section, and we’re gonna go to this section, and I yelled down to the next section. I’m gonna start it and it’s gonna keep going.” 

I found a clip from that day at the exact moment broadcaster Tony Kubek broke off from covering the action on the field and turned his attention to the stands (starts at 1:32:12):

“This crowd’s really reacting! I just saw one of the most amazing sights! If you look up into the Mezzanine, each section as they said ‘Go!’ got up all the way from behind home plate completely around the stadium through the bleachers!”

Although the Athletics lost both the game and the series, and days later the Yankees fell in the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Wave carried on. Just 16 days after that first wave at the sold out Oakland Coliseum, the University of Washington performed one at their homecoming game. In the months and years that followed, this new form of inspired behavior spread from stadium to stadium, around the world, with or without Krazy George and his drum. He’s responsible for getting millions of people around the world out of their seats and on their feet, waving their hands in the air because they really do care.

So what is it about The Wave that explains its viral popularity?

The answer, I think, is in part because it allows a massive crowd to express their collective humanity.

I believe that The Wave is a powerful symbol of our human connectedness and interdependence. In a world where technology continues to remove the distance between us and the speed at which major change can take place, our actions now affect more people from further away than ever before. We grow more interdependent each day. As a result, all of us, especially leaders, need to be more deliberate than ever about our actions because their consequences have never been bigger.

An act like The Wave is such a perfect metaphor for the style of leadership we need today that I return to it in every speech that I give and even used it as the opening of my book.

The amazing thing about a wave is that anyone who is “Krazy” enough can start one. You don’t have to be the owner of the stadium, the richest or most powerful person in the crowd, or even a professional cheerleader like George Henderson. It is a truly democratic act, because ultimately no one has to join in. It’s their choice. When you realize you do not have power over a crowd, regardless of its size, the fact we can make waves happen and generate power through a crowd is even more astounding.

Starting a wave is an act that harnesses clean and sustainable human energy, inspiring others by touching on their deeply held beliefs. It invites a crowd to join in not because they have been threatened or bribed, but because they wanted to. That is the essence of inspirational moral authority that all leaders must master, and it’s the lesson all of us can learn from Krazy George.

(This, of course, is my view. For those of you curious to learn more from the man himself, I urge you to read his book, “Still Krazy After All These Cheers”.)

Krazy George and I making a wave at the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Ceremony

At its core, leadership is about how we get people to act and to join us. When you think about it there are really only three ways to do this. You can Coerce, Motivate or Inspire. Coercion and motivation, bribing with carrots or threatening with sticks, come from without and happen to you. Inspiration, however, comes from within. When people make a wave in a stadium, what makes them express themselves by standing up out there is what comes from inside. In business, what inspires others to join in waves is the sense that they are on a journey worthy of their loyalty that embodies their deeply held beliefs and ideals.

Today the ability to make positive waves has never been greater. Now more than ever, our interdependent world demands that we find the “Krazy” within all of us.

To hear more from Krazy George about inspiring waves, watch my interview with him from 2011.

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