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“Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation and freedom in all just pursuits.” Thomas Jefferson

So much sadness, mistrust, and bitterness results from the circumstances we find ourselves in. Professionally we are inundated by the needs of demanding managers, shareholders, coworkers, and clients. Personally we struggle with wanting children, aging parents, absent spouses, broken relationships and unfulfilled dreams. Yet, occasionally we are reminded that what happens around us and to us is not what controls what happens within us.

As a speaker I’ve had the good fortune of sharing my message with organizations from fortune 100s to start-ups; from China to a neighbor’s family room; from CEO groups to Girl Scout troops. Often the most rewarding, though, are those delivered behind bars.

On Wednesday I was privileged to share leadership lessons with a group of inmates at Fort Leavenworth Prison. In an auditorium with a few volunteers and three guards, I began sharing my journey and specific take-aways with the 160 inmates.

Midway through the program the entire facility lost power, the auditorium went black, and doors automatically locked everywhere. As the guards began pacing back and forth with flashlights on the group I stood and asked, “Men, I am not afraid of the dark anymore. If it’s all right with you I’d like to continue?”

We spoke together for another 30 minutes – in total darkness, total silence, total respect. 160 men listening to the testimony of another man and realizing that the biggest difference between our stories was when they were shared. My story shared after years had passed from my mistake and significant healing had occurred; their story unfolding in the midst of the punishment brought about by their crime. Yet the desired outcome the same: a life that can be salvaged, a past that can be rectified, relationships that can be healed, and a legacy that can matter. (The desired outcome, I’d suggest, we each long for from our lives.)

Our program ended when a large contingency of prison guards came into the darkness and demanded that all inmates report immediately to their cell to be counted. The men politely stood and made their way to the back. Many detoured to the front, hugging and thanking me for the message.

My friends, as we march toward the midsummer holiday of the Fourth of July it is an appropriate time to celebrate the independence of our country. It’s also an excellent time to pause and reflect on what real personal independence is, where it exists in our lives, where it isn’t, and how we can choose the path toward real freedom.

Let your Independence Day last longer than a day.


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