Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

I am VERY thankful for…

I am extremely thankful this week because a group of college students have restored my faith in the leadership potential of the next generation. This semester, in partnership with a great company in my hometown called TutoringZone, we offered a special leadership training program called “Let The GATOR Lead” in conjunction with the Warrington College of Business Administration at the University of Florida. Every other week or so, a group of students would get together with a student facilitator and go through a chapter in my book: “Excellence by Design: Leadership – the six key characteristics of outstanding leaders,” and talk about the principles I put forth and what those leadership characteristics meant to them as college students.

Out of the 250+ students that originally signed up – more than 130 wrote essays that were judged by me and several senior executives from Fortune 100 companies in order to choose three winners that received cash scholarships as well as donations to their favorite charity and a small reward for the rest of the people in their discussion group.

All-in-all the essays added up to about 500 pages of reading, and I must say it rivaled the best leadership books I have read in the last few years. The essays were thoughtful, focused, provocative and entertaining – I could not be more thankful for all the wonderful ideas and feedback these amazing students gave to me about how they view leadership and the way they want to lead their generation. Below you will find the top three winners and two honorable mention recipients, I think there’s some wonderful stuff here that you will enjoy great deal – and I have to say that it is a shame I cannot put all the essays here on my blog – the students did an incredible job and I’m very, very thankful for what they taught me! 


Leading Yourself To Success

Alexandra Chitty

Originally, I signed up for this leadership program in order to learn how to be a better team player and a more effective leader. A potential resume builder was also a plus. However, what I have taken away from this program has been so much more meaningful than I could ever have imagined. After all I have gained, using this as a resume builder seems so petty, unimportant, and frankly, quite immature. Please lightly slap me in the back of my head for being so silly.

I am a fourth year college student and have always aspired to go to medical school and become an emergency room physician, like my mother. My mother is well respected, extremely intelligent, saves lives every day, and absolutely loves her job. She always manages to stay busy, whether she is out on the town with her boyfriend, picking up co-workers’ shifts, or traveling somewhere completely random, such as Mount Everest or the Galapagos. I have grown to respect her in a way that I would have never thought possible during my years of adolescence. I respect her in a way that I have never respected anyone before. She really can handle anything and absolutely everything that comes her way.

Recently, I seem to have lost my focus and ambition to go to medical school. I truly lost sight of my lifetime goals and have never been so directionless before in my life. Reading ‘Excellence By Design: Leadership,’ by John Spence has opened my eyes to why I stand where I stand. I took a lot of the points that he made about leadership regarding a company or organization and manipulated these concepts to apply to my life. My life consists of getting ready to leave behind the college realm and enter the real world of actual laborious management, a level of responsibility unknown to me now, and strict due dates.

John makes it clear in the beginning of his book that it is important for a successful company to maintain a clear vision. However, my life has no distinct clear vision at the moment, and many other people my age feel similar to the way I do. This revelation solidified in my mind while discussing this book with my group members. I am not the only one struggling to figure out what path I am supposed to follow! All this clear vision talk in the first chapter was a little discouraging, but I continued to read on with an open mind.

A few pages later, John surprised me. He brings up the importance of personal core values and how these values lead one’s life. “Your personal values are perhaps the most crucial elements in your success-or your failure-as a leader.” This was a very special awakening for me. I began thinking about the values I live by and how these values really define who I am and what I stand for. I have come to realize that as long as I know exactly who I am and what I stand for; I will have the confidence to know that I am going somewhere great in life. I may not know where that somewhere is right now, but I know who I am. I know what I believe in; I know my work ethic; I know how I treat others; I know the extent to which I will go for another being; I know what is important to me. By knowing these simple facts, I feel comfortable to sail my course until the wind blows me in the right direction one day. On this day, I will no longer be lost at sea, but I will be exploring the very aspects I set sail for.

I currently hold a directorship in an honor society on campus and have held several directorships in the same organization in past semesters. Leadership is not new to me, but it does not come natural to me. Since I began reading this book, I have made substantial efforts to apply the knowledge I have gained. For one, I now listen to every single person and every single question with a newly discovered patience that I never knew I owned. I have a clear vision of what I want out of this directorship and what I want others to get out of my leadership and my division. I have manipulated every problem I have encountered into a new idea or a new possibility, and it has worked out tremendously in my favor.

I can think of one particular example, which I will briefly explain. My position is basically a philanthropy chair, supporting a nonprofit organization by raising as much money as possible for this profoundly worthy cause. Members of this honor society are required to get a certain number of points from my division in order to pass the semester. They obtain these points by attending my fundraising events. I have run into problems with many of the members slacking on meeting their point requirements. Normally, this would put them on track to fail the semester. Running into these specific problems actually allows me to open up new point opportunities. These opportunities for members to get their points are also opportunities for me to concentrate on the true goal of raising money for this wonderful cause. It requires a lot more work, but at the end of the day, the more you put in to something, the more you get out of it!

I know this book has focused on how to be a successful leader of others, but I do not believe you can successfully lead others without being able to successfully lead yourself. By leading yourself and your life with the right foot forward, you can truly accomplish anything you desire. There are so many important things that I have learned and things I have realized by reading and discussing this book over the past four weeks. I have just focused on the epiphany that has once again set me on track to leading my life in the right direction. I would like to thank John Spence for teaching me how to be successful, follow my dreams, and maintain a positive attitude through such a difficult time.

Second Place

Let The Gator Lead Essay

Emily Luellen

It seems that every time I apply for a position on campus, I am always asked to give my view on leadership.  The people interviewing me would then subsequently ask how I have implemented those views of leadership in situations where I am in fact, a leader.  In the past, I would always give vague, round-about answers to these seemingly difficult questions.  I remember a particularly embarrassing interview where I mentioned that leaders have to be responsible, and that I must be responsible since all my friends tease me by calling me “Mom”.  That indicates responsibility right?  Needless to say, I did not get the position I was applying for. 

Leadership is something that is often thrust upon people, with little to no preparation.  Here at the University of Florida, all students are expected to be the future leaders of the world.  The thing is though; most of us have no idea how to go about becoming a leader of the world.  Sure, everybody at UF is intelligent, and has skills that make them unique.  However, they are unsure of how to use their own attributes to their advantage.  I myself had not a clue as to how to be a successful leader; that is until I became a part of Let The Gator Lead.  Through this program, I learned so much about the importance of leadership, what it takes to become a great leader, and most importantly, that leadership is something that can be taught.  Once I learned that minor detail, all of my fears of never becoming a leader seemed to fall by the wayside, as I started to view my future as a wide open field with loads of opportunities, instead of a dark, ranging tunnel.  Even though leadership is sometimes thrust upon people, there are indeed ways to prepare for it.

Through Let The Gator Lead, I learned many valuable lessons that I will be able to enforce throughout my life.  I learned about the importance of communication, as well as the importance of having a vision.  However, the lesson that impacted me the most was that in order to be a great leader, you must first know yourself: your strengths, your weaknesses, your personality traits, your work ethic, among many other characteristics.  Once I realized this, I started to think of leadership in a whole new light.  People are not only leaders of other people.  They are also leaders of themselves.    John Spence divulges into this subject throughout the book.  He lists a quote from Lao-Tzu that says, “He who gains mastery over other men is strong; but he who gains mastery over himself is all powerful” (106).  This is a very important topic to understand, yet I feel it often gets ignored.  I myself really didn’t understand the value of this lesson until reading the book.  However, I now understand how aimless I was in my leadership roles before I truly understood myself.  If a leader does not have a basic understanding of themselves such as, how they work under pressure, how they work with people, or how they work with conflict, then as a result, they will never be effective in their leadership roles.  Leaders must be very introspective so that they can be efficient and fair when working.

After realizing the importance of understanding yourself in order to lead others, I have made a conscious effort to become more familiar with my different features.  I have realized certain things such as, that I deal well with conflict, yet I become easily flustered when things don’t go a certain way.  These realizations have immensely helped me in many situations, and I can already see the positive repercussions.

Let The Gator Lead has been truly an inspiring experience.  John Spence defined leadership in such clear cut terms, that it made the aspect of becoming a great leader much less intimidating.  My views of leadership were given depth through both the reading, and through my small group discussion.  Due to this process, I do believe it’s true that leadership is something that can be taught.  Just by reading this book, I was taught the importance of self-reflection when it comes to leadership.  I can say without any reservations, that I am now going to be a better leader because of Let The Gator Lead.

 Third Place

Andrew Hart

There are numerous sayings and clichés that outline how one should act, live, and be a better person. Each expression has the ability to inspire or aggravate the person that should hopingly rest their eyes upon them. However, for those looking for keys to success, the point is not to simply see a quote or read a book and automatically point out your weaknesses, but instead point out your strengths and use them to focus on your weaknesses. On top of this, the very good news (bad to others, but remember think positive) is that no matter how much you read, listen, or practice; only you can change your attitude and shift your habits to better your life.

When I was in high school I went to a Student Government leadership conference for the state of Florida. While there I listened to one motivational speaker after the next, all the while thinking that these guys are just trying to make us feel good and make us laugh, I will not leave with anything useful from these speakers. However, I was proven wrong when one speaker came up and basically said was I was thinking. The man on stage said at the end of his speech…

“Here’s the real key that many speakers won’t tell you…we can’t change your life, we can’t make you do anything, we can only lay out the tools and offer them to you as shortcuts to try and have the epiphany that you can be successful. That’s right; it is up to you and you only who can change your attitude, your goals, and your path.

The speech began as something I had known all along, but then turned me upside down when I realized that it is my job to change, not his. The man indeed laid out the tools that led me to the epiphany, that I can choose my destiny, I choose how I live my life, and that I can make something out of nothing. The truth hurts sometimes, but in this case it had been my awakening to my potential.

The same goes with the book Excellence by Design: Leadership, it offers the tools to help readers realize their potential. That you should dream big, that you must believe in people, etc., but the point is that you must truly believe these points can effect and change your life. If you look at this as a self-loathing guideline to how you haven’t lived up to key points in leadership, then you still haven’t had your epiphany. That’s ok, as it says in the book, leadership is not a gift, it’s a talent that must be constantly practiced and refined. But more importantly remember that you can do anything you put your mind to, so don’t view failed attempts as a negative thing, but a positive reinforcement of how to further refine yourself.

As I did while listening to the speaker and reading this book, you wonder where I come off having the gal to tell you how you should look at things to become a better person and leader. That is why I would like to share with you the one of the biggest motivations that sent me on the path to refine my skills to become a better well rounded person. The truth is that it didn’t come from a speaker or a life lesson, but rather a movie. Because the beauty about finding your true motivation in life isn’t how prestigious or grand the idea comes from, but rather the one that knocks your socks off and stays with you constantly. This is what happened while watching the movie the Emperor’s Club. In the film a Western Civilizations teacher asks his student to read a wooden carving on the wall behind him that reads…

“I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Sussa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Niran-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte – 1158 B.C.”

 As the bewildered class looks through there texts to find this man, the teacher replies that he is not in there. The teacher looks at the class and states…

“Why is he not there you may ask? Why is he not remembered among the likes of Socrates, Plato, or Cicero? Because great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?”

This to me was a profound moment. Because I had realized that no matter what you do in life, the purpose should not be for personal glory or gratification (while those do come along with it), but to contribute to the society that I will one day no longer be a part of as I lay six feet under. No matter what I do, I should live my life to leave it better than I found it. Now that doesn’t mean you have to go out and pick up litter, but it can, but it can also be used in terms of whatever you do in life. If you are in business you can make a product that transforms our world and how we interact, like the late Steve Jobs did. If you are in medicine you can help save a person’s life or improve their life by allowing them to go on and maybe create the next fortune 500 company or write the great American novel. Now you may not become the next Cicero or Plato, but you will have contributed none the less. Because of this I now try to become a better leader and person to hopefully contribute something back even if I am not remembered, it will have influenced someone else’s life and that is remembrance enough for me.

The point of cliché sayings and reading books to become a better person or leader is not to discourage what you have not done, but what you can do and will do with the outlines that have taken others time and energy to discover. Remember though, there is no better motivator than you, and when you can harness that drive, that ability to know what you want and how you can achieve your goal, then there is nothing that can stop you. Who knows, your actions might also inspire others and have the effect of bringing others with us on the life long journey of harnessing skills and values to be better people.

 Honorable Mention

Sarah Elizabeth Fleming

Leadership is more than a word. It is a way of life. Leaders are not determined by a title, but rather by characteristics that they develop through life and experiences. Throughout this ‘Let the Gator Lead’ experience, I, and many others, have learned valuable information that will allow us to develop the core characteristics of leaders, and thus pave a road for leadership opportunities later in life. We were told to write an essay about what we learned, but instead, I am going to tell you a story. This story takes place before I learned all this information, but throughout my story, one will see how the core leadership values were utilized, leading to a successful final result. Most people believe something works when they see it in action, so this story will prove that what John Spence said in his book really does work. My story is about my senior year softball season. With a clear, vivid vision, a performance oriented culture, robust communication, and steadfast focus, my team was able to overcome enormous odds and win a state championship.

In this book, John Spence said, “A clear and specific vision is the foundation of empowerment, delegation, and teamwork. A vivid and compelling vision is what motivates people to act.” For 3 years, my team had made it to the championship game but we never came home with a gold medal. For us, our goal was simple and well defined: win a state championship. This of course was the final goal, but each game our goal was to win. By focusing on each game, we knew we would be able to accomplish the bigger goal. Since we all knew what we wanted and we all knew what we had to get there, other life decisions were easily made. If we had a hard practice on a Friday night, I knew I had to stay home and rest as opposed to go out. “When you know exactly what you should be doing, it is much easier to decide what you should not be doing,” – John Spence. As a captain, I knew I needed to make sure that every player on my team knew how important our final goal was, so during every exercise at every practice, I would mention states. I would explain how even though one element seems small; it will prepare us for the final game.

Having a clear vision is vital, but that vision can only be made real when the team is surrounded by a performance oriented culture. From day one, my coach made sure we did not slack. We ran everywhere on the field. We did not give less than 100% during those three hours every day. Once the other captain and I fully grasped our coach’s vision, we were able to demand it from the other players. We played on a team that did not allow less than 100% of our effort. Every single player knew that and it forced everyone else to work just as hard. No one wanted to be the slacker. We all got better as individuals and as a team because we all pushed each other to be the best.

As a captain, I knew that I was instrumental in establishing this performance-oriented atmosphere as well as supporting the team’s vision. In order to do my job well, I had to communicate effectively. Every word that I spoke and every action I took was noticed by the younger players. A lack of communication leads to confusion and uncertainty. In the field during the game, we players are constantly communicating. Before every play, we called where the ball was going if it was a fly ball or a ground ball. Every single player yelled out the play. This tactic was effective because it let every player know what was going on and if the ball was coming to her. Many teams fail because they lack communication, but we succeeded because we took communication very seriously. Personally, communication was very important to me. My junior year, I did not call the ball that I was diving for and neither did my short stop. We collided and I broke my knee, taking me out for the rest of the season. On little communication mishap and a whole season can be ruined.

The characteristics mentioned all add up to extreme focus. With a specific goal, a productive environment, and strong communication, the team had no choice but to be focused. As captain, I knew that I personally had to be focused or else the other players would not be. I had a clear idea of what excellence meant to me and I stayed focus on that. Focus requires a lot of discipline and sacrifice, but it was not difficult to make those sacrifices when I knew what I wanted to accomplish. I made sure my whole team was as focused as I was, and in the end it paid off.

The combination of a clear vision, a performance oriented culture, strong communication, and extreme focus leads to a successful team. My team worked extremely hard for five months all for one game that lasted two hours. But in the end, all the sacrifice and discipline was worth it. Every time I look at the championship ring on my finger, I am proud to know that I was a leader of a phenomenal team. John Spence knows what he is talking about and he knows how to make everyone leaders of phenomenal teams. It is only a matter of embracing the qualities he laid out, but once you do that, anything is possible. 

 Honorable Mention

Kimberly Crofford

A great leader is an inspirational person who directs others towards a shared goal and vision. A great leader is an empowering person who develops others and watches them grow. A great leader is a passionate person who truly believes in themselves and the life that he or she lives.

An exceptional leader encompasses all of these qualities, and makes a difference in the lives of others. Leadership is important wherever we go. Whether it is in the professional world or more on a personal level, we are all affected by other people’s beliefs, attitudes, and decisions. Regardless of the stage in our lives, leadership will make an impact on society even long after we are gone.

To effectively LEAD, a person must:

. LOVE what they do, and believe in it

. ENCOURAGE others to develop themselves and the world

. ACT on their plans with confidence

. DETERMINE if the results support their goals

As a young leader in today’s society, I am thrilled to see the various opportunities and resources granted to us. However, the differentiating factor between those who are good and those who are great is the initiative and determination to seize the opportunities and make them their own.

The ability to meet new people, go out of one’s comfort zone, express opinions, and act in a way that changes how other’s think or see some aspect of society will move all of us in a direction. Whether that is a “good” or “bad” direction is something that must be evaluated in each and every one of our lives. However, to have such abilities is the foundation for leadership. What we do with that foundation is up to us. What we want to see in the world is up to us. How we lead is up to us. Who we are and what we are passionate in is truly up to us.


  1. Awesome articles, thank you for posting them up for reading!

  2. How is it that all of the winners have nothing but good things to say about the book? especially considering the fact that quite a few people in the program have been critical of the book.

    Why is it that all of them refer to the book and John..and sound like book reviews or “my experience with let the gator lead” rather than something about leadership theory that could be included in the next edition of the book?

    Why are most of them personal experiences rather than topics of more general interest as were suggested? (leadership in emerging economies, leadership and social entrepreneurship, leadership and youth)

    • Well, to my good friend anon@anon.anon: I was contemplating simply ignoring your comment – then I thought perhaps a polite but curt response might be good – but I’ve chosen to give a more robust and frank reply. It seems rather obvious that you must be one of the students who was not chosen as winner – I believe I will begin with this first point which is: nobody likes a sore loser. I’m sorry you did not win – get used to it – there is a good chance that you will not likely win everything – all the time – for the rest of your life.

      You state that quite a few people in the program were critical of the book – we received 136 essays and perhaps four were critical… a few people thought the equations were confusing and did not make sense – which is exactly right!!! If I had it to do it over again I would not have included the equations, or I would’ve found a much, much better way to explain them. One person felt the book was out of order – that I should have moved around the chapters to make it easier to understand all the ideas. And lastly, one person basically thought the entire book was a pile of shit and that I was completely wrong and most probably an idiot. However, the remaining 132 or so thought it was a pretty good book, with some decent ideas, and enjoyed the way I presented the information. To date we have sold about 60,000 copies of the book – so had it not been self published it would’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list – so I have to believe there is at least some merit and quality in the text.

      I will say that more than 90% of the essays contained some version of… “Based on my experience with Let The Gator Lead…” and nearly everyone reflected on some sort of personal experience as a way to share their ideas on emerging leadership trends – especially leadership and youth. We purposefully left the essay topic very broad to allow people the maximum amount of leeway for creativity. It was my job to choose the 25 most interesting, creative and thought-provoking of the essays – which were sent on to seven senior executives at Fortune 100 companies – who returned to me a list of five that they thought were the very best. It was my job to cull the list down to what I felt were the best three – and then I added in two Honorable Mentions. I really did not enjoy trying to pick the winners – every essay was excellent – everybody had something interesting and thoughtful to say. But, it was a contest – and someone had to win – and someone had to lose (that would be you anon@anon.anon). Were the winning essays perfect? No. Am I the perfect judge? No. Am I the world’s leading guru on leadership? Absolutely not – no, no, no. But, for this contest it was my mediocre book, 136 college students doing their best to try to write a good essay about leadership in college, some exceedingly qualified judges – and a handful of students who were eventually called the “winners.” Again, I’m sorry that you did not win – but I am more sorry that you felt compelled to write your comment which clearly shows that you had a hard time losing and were unwilling to accept that perhaps the essays that did win were worthy.

      Let me finish I saying that I did learn a tremendous amount of incredibly valuable information that will be going into my next book. The single most pertinent and impressive character trait that the vast majority of the students talked about in their essays was: Self-awareness. Again and again they commented on how important it was to first be an effective leader of yourself – before you can be an effective leader of others. Also, research project after research project – including a very broad multi-year study from Harvard – show that self-awareness is the single most imporant characteristic of highly effective leaders. So maybe this might be a good opportunity for you to reflect on your experience with Let The Gator Lead and why you felt so strongly that you had to send your comment – as a reflection of your own personal thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. Regardless, I do hope you found some value in the program – and I honestly wish you every possible success and happiness going forward. Sincerely – John Spence