Inspiring Lessons From the Life Journey of Mr. Warrick Dunn
As many of us prepare for the big college football rivalry weekend, let’s take a moment to learn about leadership from Warrick Dunn, retired USA football star with a storied career in college and the National Football League. Although there is much to celebrate from his sporting success, Mr. Dunn’s real impact is now on full display through his inspiring and selfless service to society in present day.
His life journey inspires me to become a better person and leader. My hope is that his story will do the same for you.
For those who might not know of Mr. Dunn, his non-profit (Warrick Dunn Charities) is dedicated to giving the gift of homes to struggling single parents across the United States. A few weeks ago, his organization reached a heartwarming milestone by giving the 144th gift of homeownership to another single-parent family. Kudos to Mr. Dunn for making a difference in so many lives around the country.
The deepest part of human nature is that which urges people to rise above our present circumstances and to *transcend* our common nature. ~ Stephen R. Covey
Mr. Dunn first made an impact on me over 22 years ago, when…
…as a University of Florida graduate, I had a chance to experience Mr. Dunn at our annual rivalry game against Florida State in November 1993. With the game on the line and the odds stacked against his team, Dunn and the Florida State Seminoles broke my Florida Gator-faithful heart with this jaw dropping 80-yard touchdown reception that can be experienced through the YouTube replay of this classic game (starting at 3:09:19).
If you look closely enough, I think you can actually see me (and 80,000 other Florida Gator fans) shedding tears during this heart-wrenching moment. As I watched him race down the sideline for the game winning score, I remember thinking:
Wow, this guy is something special.
As we’ll learn in a moment, special is a gross understatement. I struggle to find words to describe Mr. Dunn’s humble servant-leadership and the impact he is making in our world today.
This is what makes Warrick Dunn such an inspirational leader
Sure, college football fans love ‘the game’ and yes, I was disappointed to watch my team lose that day. At the time, however, Mr. Dunn was dealing with unimaginable heartbreak and responsibilities off the field.
Earlier that year (in January 1993), his Mom (Betty Smothers, a single parent) was ambushed and killed while serving as an off-duty police officer. This terrible family tragedy put Warrick, at only 18 years of age, into the role of head of household by assuming the responsibility of raising his two siblings. As much as I try to empathize, I am unable to comprehend how difficult it was for Warrick and his family.
Looking back on that day, I am ashamed at myself for being so upset over the outcome of a college football game, especially while Mr. Dunn was dealing with real struggles that actually matter in life. If I could hit the rewind button, I would have responded very differently. Instead of tears of despair, I would’ve shed tears of joy for a young man who deserved that timeless highlight for the benefit of his family, his football team and his proud institution.
Just imagine the level of courage this young man showed as he faced the loss of his only parent and the tremendous responsibilities he had to assume as the Father figure for his family. Throughout that ordeal, he still found a way to continue his studies at Florida State and prepare for the upcoming football season. And it doesn’t end there — as fate would have it, he went on to help lead Florida State to its first National Championship that season.
Warrick Dunn’s relentless focus, purpose and selfless leadership have since elevated his life journey to inspiring levels of success, including:
- A successful 12-year career in the NFL.
- Founder of the Homes for the Holidays program, which has made home ownership a reality for over 144 single parents and their families since 1997.
- Expansion of his mission into Warrick Dunn Charities. Since 2002, his organization has awarded millions in home furnishings, food and other donations to single-parent families and children across the nation.
All I can say is … wow.
What can Warrick Dunn teach us about real workplace leadership?
Within organizations small and large, there are many people who have a job title proclaiming themselves as leaders, but real leadership has nothing to do with our place in an organizational boss-subordinate hierarchy or a powerful job title.
Warrick Dunn is a living example of real leadership, and I encourage all of us to learn from him.
My professional journey continues to reinforce a powerful insight:
We need more REAL leaders in the workplace, especially in the Fortune 500 space.
To be clear, there are many great leaders on display in these big companies now. It’s wonderful and inspirational when I get the chance to witness the emergence of real leadership within the challenging corporate cultures that still exist within many Fortune 500-esque companies today.
However………I believe there is an opportunity to encourage even more REAL leaders in the workplace; leaders who are:
Let’s all learn from Mr. Dunn’s leadership and what it means to give away a personal ego for a larger purpose. Despite making millions in the NFL, Mr. Dunn has chosen to invest his good fortune into others…lifting struggling single parents to new heights. What does it take for each of us to give away our personal egos at work, so we can mentor and grow others to become better than us?
Imagine the level of courage Mr. Dunn showed in 1993 as he faced the loss of his only parent. His newfound Father figure responsibilities would’ve overwhelmed almost anyone, but not Warrick Dunn. He faced the moment with the courage to move forward, and look at where that took his life journey.
Workplace courage pales in comparison, but it’s still an essential element of real leadership in an organization. Exemplifying courage allows you to create conditions where your teammates can speak freely when it matters most. What challenges do you face at work? Are there certain situations where you feel scared to tell the truth? Courage is your ability to confront those fears directly, so you can lead your organization toward its larger goals on a daily basis.
Great leaders inspire others, but this inspiration is razor-focused on a shared purpose – which is the vision & mission of the organization. One look at Mr. Dunn’s charity website and you’ll feel the purpose that it serves. In your organization, great leaders understand how to translate the vision & mission into a focused set of business objectives that people achieve…not because they have to, but because they WANT to.
Mr. Dunn does not garner the spotlight. He celebrates the continued success of his work by deflecting the praise toward his charity’s Board of Directors (who are also quite inspiring people). This is a profound trait of great leaders; the ability to melt behind the scenes as others are celebrated for their success.
5. Masters of Their Craft
Great leaders bring a deep level of skills, knowledge and experience in an organization. Like Mr. Dunn, real leaders have lived in the arena (and might still play in the arena), and they use their knowledge and experience to thoughtfully mentor and grow others toward their full potential.
What does it take to become a *real* Leader?
What makes Warrick Dunn an inspiring leader to you? What other lessons can we learn from Mr. Dunn’s life journey? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below so we can all learn from each other.
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