Street Smart Leadership: 5 Lessons From Growing Up in New York

Last Updated Jan 28, 2011 12:26 PM EST

Street Smart LeadershipI grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. No, I wasn't homeless. We just lived in a tiny apartment so not much went on there. All the action was elsewhere. On the streets. So that's where we all hung out.

I don't talk about it much because, well, when I do, nobody believes what really went on.

Gang violence may be new to most American cities, but it goes back decades in New York. My best friend was shot crossing the street. Kids got killed. Drugs were everywhere. Books and movies like Up the Down Staircase and The Principal were nothing compared with the real racial violence that went on in the schools.

It was pretty nuts.

But growing up in a crowded city had a a bright side, a very bright side. Whereas most kids grow up with a few siblings and close friends, I grew up with 40 or so people who were close enough to be my brothers and sisters. Population density will do that.

For the vast majority of you who don't know what that's like, it's like this. It's never a dull moment. You learn a lot about people. And you learn a lot about yourself.

Looking back, I think it was an incredible proving ground for leaders. Why? Competition for survival. Maybe that's why so many of us went on to successful careers in technology, business, law, medicine, whatever.

Of course, not everybody turned out so well. But if you're the type of personality who wants and expects a lot out of life - and is willing to put in the effort to make that happen - it's a great place to be from. Even if you're not, it's still a great place to be from.

Here are 5 Leadership Traits From Growing Up on the Streets of the Big Apple:
  1. Personality. If you're wondering what the competition for survival I mentioned earlier was all about, it was primarily about four things: sports, school, girls (or guys), and friends. And at least half of those competitions were won by personality. What can I say, we spent most of our time trying to get attention, tell stories, and crack each other up. It's no coincidence that every great CEO I've known had a great sense of humor and could really tell a story.
  2. Street smarts. Some call it street smarts, others call it savvy, gut instinct, survival skills, or common sense. I think the primary result of all that is a keen awareness of what's going on around you. Always collating, analyzing, searching for and assessing opportunities and threats. That translates to the business world incredibly well.
  3. Instincts about people. Also related to street smarts, this is about the intuitive ability to read people. I once wrote about how to know when someone is BSing you. For me, it's more or less instinctive. I can tell when people are being genuine, when there's more than meets the eye, what motivates them. Leadership is all about knowing people.
  4. Openness. I know it sounds counterintuitive since people generally think New Yorkers are guarded and cold. That's a fallacy. When you grow up that close to all those people, you become comfortable with everyone knowing everything. And since you know people and who to trust, you can be more open. People are attracted to openness; it's an often overlooked leadership trait.
  5. Acceptance of diversity. If nothing else, New York City is a melting pot. You come into contact with all kinds of people and ways of life. All ages, shapes and sizes, levels of wealth, backgrounds, religions, sexual preferences, and ethnicities. All that exposure is priceless. You also learn that nobody is better than anybody else ... and that we all have far more in common than not. It's a tremendous competitive advantage to be able to look past all that crap and get to what really matters: family, fun, and business.
Image courtesy Matt Gelfand ... from the old neighborhood.

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