I Am A Leader: Ben De Leon’s Thoughts about Leadership

Welcome to the I Am A Leader blog series, featuring leaders who make a difference. Today’s guest blogger is Ben De Leon, President and Managing Partner of De Leon & Washburn, P.C., which was founded by his father and mentor, Hector De Leon, on July 1, 1977. A native Austinite, Ben serves on various boards that emphasize the importance of education, social services, and mentoring. Ben was named the 2009 National Big Brother of the Year by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, out of more than 250,000 mentors nationwide; he received the 2011 Austin Under 40 Youth & Education Category Award; and was recently named a 2012 Outstanding Young Texas Ex by the University of Texas Ex-Students’ Association, based on his significant accomplishments and dedicated service that have brought distinction to the University of Texas. Ben and his wife Shannon are the proud parents of three children: Anna (4), Winslow (2), and Henry (5 mos.).

Growing up, I always strove for perfection: I had to color within the lines; I had to make the blocks line up just right; I had to demonstrate excellent behavior in the classroom; I had to memorize everything for the upcoming test; I had to get straight A’s; I had to have the correct response each time a teacher called on me; I had to execute my assignment just right when playing football in high school. Anything less was inexcusable and, consequently, I considered myself a failure for many years – well into my professional career as an attorney. As I have come to find out, there is no such thing as perfection, particularly when it comes to leadership. There is only progress, and more progress. Upon reflection, I think I have become a better leader through making mistakes and learning from them; falling and getting back up again; and battling through adversity when every fiber of my being tells me to give up.

Strangely enough, a 7-year old boy named Anthony Saldana helped me become the leader I am today. I first met Anthony in the spring of 2006, when he was a seven-year-old, second-grade student at Oak Springs Elementary School in East Austin, through a mentorship program called Austin Partners In Education. Unbeknownst to me, at the time, Anthony was on the waiting list for a Big Brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. His grandmother and legal guardian wrote me a letter at the end of the school year, asking me to become his Big Brother. I carry that letter in my briefcase to this day, as a reminder of how far Anthony and I have come, and how far we have yet to go. I have been Anthony’s Big Brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas since June of 2006. Anthony is now fourteen, and is entering the ninth grade at Connally High School in Pflugerville.

By getting out of my comfort zone and mentoring this young man, I have learned so much about myself. And I’m a better person because of it. Service to others before oneself is at the heart of leadership. By serving others, we gain new perspectives on our own lives and, in turn, we are transformed. My paternal grandfather often told my father, “No one can take away what you know.” And as my father often tells me, “The only way you learn is by doing.” Thanks to Anthony, I now know much more about humility, love, patience, perseverance, and tolerance than I could have ever imagined – because I decided to stop making excuses and start doing by focusing on someone else. Don’t ever discount the origin of your next learning experience, and don’t ever discount another human being because of the circumstances into which he or she was born.  

The above leads me to where I am today: I am passionate about organizing others for the greater good, and the underlying theme is service – be it through matching more at-risk children in need of affirmation with willing mentors (I have served on the BBBS of Central Texas Executive Board since 2010, and the BBBS Foundation Board since 2011); scholarship programs at the University of Texas at Austin (I have served as the Scholarship Chair of the Texas Exes Board of Directors since 2011); serving as a pro bono attorney to Spanish-speaking women who seek divorces that oftentimes involve domestic violence (I was recently named to the Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas Board of Directors); advocating for the creation of a new teaching hospital in Austin, to serve more of our indigent population in most need of medical services (I have been a member of The Fifty (the Seton Fund) since early 2012); or listening to and communicating with my coworkers, to better manage their expectations of me (I was named President of De Leon & Washburn, P.C. on July 1, 2012). 

At day’s end, we cannot please everyone with whom we come into contact. Indeed, leaders are called upon to make difficult decisions that others may not like. But leadership is not a popularity contest. To me, leadership is about accountability: I can only control my thoughts, actions, and reactions, not those of others. I still have work to do in this regard. Progress, not perfection.          

A special thank you to Ben De Leon for sharing his insights with us today! Stay tuned every Friday as the I Am A Leader blog series continues. Please share this blog post via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter using the #iamaLEADER hash tag! You can connect with Ben on Twitter here and SOS Leadership here.

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