What I learned in Mr. Sampson’s Barbershop: Teachers, Coaches, and Mentors as Supportive Positive Influence Leaders

What I learned in Mr. Sampson’s Barbershop: Teachers, Coaches, and Mentors as Supportive Positive Influence Leaders

Copyright Joshua Resnick, 123rf.com

Bob, an African American management consultant in our study group, recalled fondly the time spent as a 12-year old hanging around the local barbershop in his neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. 

The barber, Mr. Sampson, introduced Bob and other young men to black history in a town where, at the time, the public-school curriculum did not include anything about the history of famous black Americans. These experiences of looking at the pictures on the wall of the barbershop and talking with Mr. Sampson and the other people in the shop helped Bob learn and understand his heritage and, as he said, “think of myself in a positive light.” 

This experience served him well when he later attended a college in New Jersey, where the percentage of African American students was less than one percent. Thinking of himself “in a positive light” helped Bob negotiate both the academic and social challenges of being a young African American man on the campus. He was also helped by an upper class man who became a role model for his steadiness, rigor, and discipline; who taught him how to position himself in the college community; and from whom he learned the social skills necessary for success. 

Supportive Positive Influence is Always Situational

American actress Viola Davis has talked often about how supportive Meryl Streep has been to her since they appeared together in the Broadway product of Doubt. In fact, before Davis went onstage to accept her 2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Fences, she stopped to give Streep a kiss and a hug. They often exchange phone calls and notes. Davis has said Streep says things that make her feel that “what I have is enough.” In other words, being supportive in this case means “you are good enough to be successful; you don’t need to feel lesser than.” And successful she is.  Davis is the only African American actress to win a Tony, an Oscar, and an Emmy. 

Betsy, a woman we interviewed, was studying theater in college assuming her true north was acting, writing, and directing. However, the course of study included a required course in technical theater, where the focus was on lighting, sound, and set design. During the course, Jim, the instructor, assigned Betsy to go up on a tall ladder and hang lights on a clamp high above the stage. As Betsy recounts the situation now with a typical sense of humor, she says, “I had never been on a ladder. I was a little Jewish girl. We never even had a ladder in our house. But Jim, said, ‘Betsy, you can do it,’ and I believed him.” 

This was a game changer for Betsy. As she told us, “In those days, no one would send a woman to do something technical in the theater. From there I began using power tools, learned how to build a set, and wire everything on a stage.” 

Sometimes being a supportive leader requires that you give the person confidence that they can achieve their goals. Peter, a medical oncologist, spoke of Dr. Zwicker, his mentor in college who gave him an opportunity to work in his lab as an undergraduate. His willingness to let Peter work in the lab gave him confidence, as did having him work on his projects.

Ultimately, he made Peter co-author of an article based on their work in the lab. Dr. Zwicker saw that Peter lacked confidence because he came to the United States from Korea, with limited knowledge of the English language and culture. However, as Peter said, “He let me come along when he saw patients—which, in turn, inspired me to go to medical school. From these experiences with Dr. Zwicker, I learned that you create your own barriers and you need to break down those barriers because no one can do it for you.”

The supportive positive influence leader will be there for you, but will also tell you the hard truth, provide the guidance you need, and help you get to the next level.

For more stories of positive influence and how you can become a positive influence leader, pick up a copy of our new book, Positive Influence: The Who Helps People Become the Best Self (HRD Press, 2020).