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A businesswoman ascending stairs holding a briefcase.Rick Lord

Always Begin in the Room You Are In

"Where does change begin? It begins in this room. Why?

Because this is the room you are in."

– Peter Block

If we really want to step up and make a difference in our company and in the world we need to understand that the best place to begin stepping up is wherever you are right now. Stepping up begins when we open our eyes and see that wherever we are, whatever moment we are in, and whatever situation we find ourselves in, stepping up is available to us right there.

Remember the simple definition of stepping up I shared in the preface: "Seeing a need and deciding you are the right person to do something about it"? A corollary of this is that we must act with whatever gifts and skills we have. As Arthur Ashe, the late tennis great, once said, "To achieve greatness start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can."

Rahul Singh is a paramedic and makes his living that way. He also happens to have been named by Time magazine in 2010 as one of the world's one hundred most influential people. His story and how he became named by Time illustrate the important principle of stepping up right where you are with the skills that you have.

Rahul grew up in Montreal and Toronto, trained as a paramedic, and was working in emergency medicine. When his marriage ended in the mid-1990s, he decided to travel and wound up in southeast Nepal. While working and training at a teaching hospital, he got deployed to an area where a series of horrific mudslides had occurred.

"When I got there, it was great to be able to see the impact of your work so directly," he told me. "Every day we were getting clean water to people who had none, literally saving people's lives every day. We were doing really good work, and then suddenly the word came down that the agency had run out of money and they pulled the plug."

Upset about the shutdown, Rahul hiked and took a bus back to Kathmandu to find the head of the agency. The director was staying at a five-star hotel and offered to take Rahul out for a fancy steak dinner. Halfway through the meal Rahul said he felt an incredible anger well up in him: "I could hardly keep my meal down. It was such a contrast, people were living in such poverty, we were bringing clean water to people who had none, and here he was living it up. I let him have it, told him what I thought. Guess what? No surprise, he fired me!"

Rahul went back to Canada. Soon after his return, his best friend, David Gibson, died from complications of a liver transplant. Gibson had just married the year before and had fought like hell to stay alive. He was only in his early thirties. David's death was a deep, personal blow to Rahul, but it also became a catalyst.

"When I went to his funeral, I saw how many lives he had touched in his short life and I thought, 'Look what he did while he was here.' Then I thought, 'He's so young, and I'm not far behind, so now is the time to live.' That's when I put two and two together," Rahul said. He realized he could combine his experiences in Nepal and his training as a paramedic and make them the basis for a foundation in David's name "to meet the need for emergency medicine in the developing world."

People repeatedly have asked me this question about stepping up: what made people finally step up to take action? From my experience there are two primary drivers of stepping up, and they are both illustrated in Rahul's story. The first is anger, the feeling of having had enough, and the sense that something isn't right (and that someone has to do something about it). It was Rahul's anger—about that expensive hotel and dinner in harsh contrast to the poverty he had seen in the villages—that led him to decide that something had to be done. Anger about the slaughter of whales fuelled Rex Weyler, and anger about the casual response to dead people in front of bars motivated Father Crowe.

But the second catalyst seems to be an initial sense of one's power to change things. The march to the cemetery helped Father Crowe see the potential to bring people together to advocate for change; the funeral of his friend David showed Rahul that one person could have immeasurable influence over others; and the growing number of people who attended the re-spiriting committee meetings at Mercy propelled group members to become bolder in confronting their colleagues.

On the back of the anger and seeing the difference his friend had made, Rahul started an organization named Global Medic and built on a simple principle: get paramedics and other emergency personnel to donate their time during emergencies, raise money for supplies, and try to get to the scene as quickly as possible. Over the last ten years the agency has grown from $8,500 per year in donations to over $1 million. But the impact of the organization is far greater than those numbers might imply, because everyone who provides services is a volunteer.

Rahul has been on the scene of many of the worst disasters of the last decade, including the tsunami in Southeast Asia and the horrific earthquake in Haiti. To this day, the charity has only two employees, and Rahul is not one of them; he still makes his living as a full-time paramedic.

"We have a mantra, 'The most amount of aid to the greatest number of people, for the least cost,'" Rahul told me.

He was not a fundraiser nor did he have any particular managerial skill. What Rahul had was even more important. He had a desire for things to be better and decided he was the one who could do something about it. During my interview with him, he also gave me one of the most important insights into stepping up, a simple but profound idea: you have to use the gifts you have to work with.

Here is what he told me: "I am a paramedic, so the natural way for me to step up was to go do emergency medicine. For some kid in grade 7, she might be best at holding a bake sale to raise money. If you are a pharmaceutical company, the best way for you to step up is providing drugs, and if you are an airline it is about providing a plane to send the supplies. There is a woman named Sharon who volunteers for us. She works at a local hospital and can't take off and go to the sites. But she comes and spends hours packing the supplies, so that's her way of stepping up. Just because you are the one who goes to the far-flung places doesn't make you more important. Each of us has to step up with what we have to offer."

Begin Where You Are, Do What You Can

Beginning where you are and doing what you can with your unique set of skills is critical. Last year my partner and I made a trip to Uganda where we spent about five weeks doing pro bono work for an organization that has helped thousands of women raise themselves out of poverty. When we returned home we experienced a bit of a funk, as we were back at home without that deep sense of purpose that we had every day in Uganda. Then one day we stopped at a stoplight where a homeless man was begging for money. He looked as poor and as dejected as many of those we had seen in Uganda.

"What a shame we had to go all that way to Uganda to help people," my partner said. "We should do something right here where we live."

Often we think we have to go to some distant place to step up when the opportunity is sitting right in front of us. Over the next several months, with our eyes open now, we started noticing the punishing poverty and hopelessness within blocks of our home. We adopted a homeless man by becoming his main supplier for recyclable products that he could take for refunds. I offered my consulting services for free to an organization four blocks from my home that does extensive work with homeless people and wound up joining the board.

Sometimes to step up we must put aside visions of some larger work to start acting right where we are now. A young man in his early 20s wrote an e-mail to Rex Weyler after reading about how he and others had helped stop the whale hunt. Attracted to the sense of adventure and purpose in the whale campaign, the young idealist told Weyler that he wanted to do something big like that and help save the planet. Rex wrote him back, saying that it was great to want to do something big, but that he should start by finding something he could do right in his own neighbourhood.

At first the young man seemed discouraged by the idea, but some months later the young man wrote back. After receiving the advice to look in his own backyard, he noticed that on recycling day, few houses in his neighbourhood recycled very much. So he put together a simple flier showing what a difference recycling makes, he went out and got scores of blue bins, and then he went door to door to win his neighbours to recycling. By the end of just a few weeks' work, almost every house in his neighbourhood had full blue boxes outside. He stepped up right where he was with the gifts he had. Most of all, he realized that stepping up right where he was planted had produced immediate results.

Excerpted from Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, Copyright @ 2012 by John Izzo, PhD. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.