Presence.

I’TCAT_NFI_203m still getting adjusted to the Cornell community here in Ithaca. One of my first lessons was figuring out the local bus system, called TCAT (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit). Bus drivers can be a mixed lot, I suppose like most any profession. It’s a tough job, often quite routine, and requires dealing with all manner of customers. Yet, each one of us places our trust, our lives even, into the driver’s hands when we board that bus and it leaves the stop. It’s on par with an airline pilot in my opinion.

In Ithaca, the TCAT operates the Cornell campus shuttles as well.  Most drivers are cordial, most passengers, students included, say thank when leaving the bus. One driver however, stands out among his peers. I’ve yet to learn his name, but I assure you any Cornell student or Ithaca resident reading this knows who he is. Rather than rely on the on-board automated voice system to register the next stop, he bellows proudly where we are headed. “NEXT UP FOLKS, RISLEY HALL. <deliberate pause> RISLEY HALL FOLKS.”  The bus remains nearly quiet until he speaks again.

For the last two weeks, when his bus is full, and it always seems to be full, he uses that stage to help garner support for his two daughter’s efforts this coming weekend to participate in the Binghamton Polar Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics.  “Now folks if I can have your attention for a moment here” he begins as we wait at the light. The full bus again falls silent. “My two daughters will be participating in the Polar Plunge to be held up at Chenango Valley State Park this coming weekend. They are trying to raise money for the Special Olympics of New York, a wonderful organization that does wonderful work for many people. My daughters keep trying to convince me to take the Plunge with them, but as of yet I am not sure I want to dive into that cold water. Until I decide however, I am asking for your support if you’d like to help them raise some money. They assure me that 100% of the money they raise will go directly to the cause so you can feel good about whatever you can give.”

The bus stops, almost as if on cue at the Uris Hall stop, which he again bellows proudly. “WE’RE AT URIS HALL FOLKS.  <deliberate pause> URIS HALL.” Students, staff, anyone riding the bus that morning, all approach the front of the bus as they depart and fill his manila envelop with cash. I am certain he must have raised well over $1000 by now for his daughters’ Plunge. He has a gift, a presence, which I hope each of those Cornell students will learn and take with them. That lesson will likely serve them just as well as anything they absorb in one of their many classes.

Here is what I know about leadership and presence. It does not matter whether you are male or female, tall or short, standing or seated. You need to own your message and deliver it as though it will benefit all those that hear it.  Command the space you occupy yet allow others to approach you to share in your message.  That driver makes students put down their cell phones and engage willingly. He changes the dynamic of an otherwise mundane environment, and whether I chose to donate or not, I left his bus more educated and changed, if only slightly.

I’ve given twice already, by the way. If he asked for my credit card number, I am pretty certain I would actually stop to consider that as well.

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