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The Legendary #44 - a Leadership Example for Us AllIf you’re an SU alumni (or sports fan!), the number 44 holds great significance.  This weekend I watched The Express: a movie based on the life of Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman trophy winner – also a former SU football player.

To understand my excitement about watching this movie, you need to know a couple things.  First, I’m quick to express my support for my alma mater.  Those close to me know my penchant for the Orange.  Second, 44 isn’t just significant to me – it’s a bit of a legend  on the Hill.  Many football greats have worn that jersey at Syracuse, and we have a slight obsession with the number.  Campus phone numbers start with the number 44, a bar is named 44’s, the zip code is 13244…like I said, slight obsession.

Now that I’ve laid my bias out on the table, here’s my point:  this movie has great messages about leadership that even non-SU devotees should heed.

Leaders never stop learning.  Coach Schwartzwalder had respect for Davis’ skills on the football field, and he constantly pushed him to be a better player.  Davis learned a lot from him.  But Schwartzwalder didn’t respect Davis once they were off the field.  Instead, he continued to operate within the race-based mindset that was common for the time, and that he was comfortable with.  Playing football in the south in the late 1950s couldn’t have been easy for a Black man like Davis.  Without Schwartzwalder’s support, it must have been even more difficult.  However, as Davis grew more confident in the leadership role he was taking on, he started to assert himself – he demanded that Schwartzwalder rethink his race-based mindset and show him the same support the White football players saw.  Over time, Schwartzwalder saw that Davis was standing up for what was right and that he needed a friend in his corner.  Schwartzwalder may have been in the formal leadership position, but he wasn’t perfect.  Davis helped him learn to challenge his previous thinking (and the popular thinking of that time period). 

In our companies, we come across hardships and obstacles all the time.  Do we get support from our leaders?  Think about the difference it makes when someone’s in your corner.  The best relationships are those where you both learn from each other.

Sometimes you’re a leader without ever knowing it.  Davis didn’t know he was a role model.  He just thought he was doing what he loved: playing football.  It took his family telling him to stop and look around at the support from the Black community before Davis realized it.  Here was a Black man, not only playing football on a predominately White team, but excelling!  Davis only had to look into the crowds to see the admiration and respect people had for him.  In one scene in the movie, the team bus is driving to a game and another bus full of Black fans drives by, with “Go Ernie” signs against the windows.  Davis wasn’t just playing football.  He was becoming a civil rights leader.

You don’t have to be in a formal leadership position to be a leader.  You just have to take a stand for something that you believe in.  Davis was respected because he believed in equality and refused to settle for anything less.  Leaders lead because they don’t know how to look away from something they’re passionate about.

Leadership is a tough journey, and you never know where it will take you.  Davis knew he loved to run.  He just thought he was running away from something.  Turns out he was running toward his destiny as not only a great football player, but a great activist.  Davis didn’t know that running would take him all the way to the Division I football and the NFL draft.  He dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy one day – it didn’t matter that all the previous Heisman winners had been White men.  He was determined to be the best he could be.  Davis experienced a lot of discrimination along the way, but because of his actions he broke the color barrier with the Heisman trophy.  He wasn’t posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame solely for his football prowess – it was as much for the journey he took as for his accomplishments.

Leadership doesn’t take us down a clear, unfettered path.  We become leaders because we step up to the challenges in front of us.  Part of leadership is leading into the uncertainty, despite not knowing what’s in front of us.

What other lessons does The Express teach us about leadership?  I’m sure we could learn more lessons from looking closely at some of the other characters in the movie.  For that matter, there are plenty of movies out there that inspire us on our leadership journeys.  As you’re exploring your own path to becoming a leader, what films have inspired you?

And if you haven’t seen it already…you need to add The Express to your Netflix list!

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