WILLOUGHBY: Great by choice

I ask each of my interviewees their favorite business/leadership book. By far, the most frequent book referenced is Jim Collins’ Good to Great. Collins has a follow-up book out, which is also very impactful titled “Great By Choice.” In the book he states, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.”

While he is primarily referring to organizations, I believe his statement is equally true for individuals. There are many things we can’t control in life, but we can control our attitude and our personal integrity. I enjoy studying the lives of leaders who CHOOSE to pursue greatness regardless of their circumstance. Interestingly, this choice is usually not about personal gain, but instead in pursuit of greatness in the service of others.

Beneta Burt is one of those leaders who have made a choice. Burt serves as executive director of Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity Inc. (Roadmap). The organization is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and has a primary focus of “raising awareness leading to community action where health and social disparities exist.” Founded in 2003, Roadmap has made significant strides in eradicating and/or minimizing the structural or social barriers relevant to disparities in health in Jackson including the creation of a local farmer’s market and fitness center.

Burt grew up on a rural farm outside of Oxford. After high school, she earned her degree from Jackson State University on full scholarship as a part of a prestigious academic program called the “13 College Curriculum” (aptly named because there were 13 colleges across the country participating in the program – and sharing the same curriculum).In this program, there was a tremendous emphasis on cultural growth as well as academic. She shared, “It served as the basis for the person and professional I have become today.” For example, her English instructor routinely required students to do presentations on any subject just to be more comfortable presenting in a persuasive manner before an audience. She subsequently earned a MPPA degree (masters, public policy and administration) from Jackson State University.

Her mother and father had a significant influence on her leadership style. Burt said, “Very early on they taught me that the only thing you have and can control is yourself and your own integrity.” Her father once told Burt and her siblings, “You’re getting to go to school because I own this land. Understand the importance of ownership – as a means of controlling how you live your life.” He also taught them their word is their bond – and many other lessons around the kitchen table every evening. I believe there is much wisdom that has been handed down over the generations around the dinner table. I fear we are losing that in our “on-the-go” culture.

Burt encourages people to lead from wherever you are within the organization. Leadership expert John Maxwell calls this 360-degree leadership. She noted, “You don’t have to be CEO. Lead from the middle or the bottom.” She encourages leaders to lead with integrity, strength and most importantly – heart. Burt emphasized that leading with heart does not mean you are ‘soft.’ It ensures your employees will be happy – and as a result, productive.” She went on to address the issue of money. Burt noted, “Money is important – but it’s not the only thing. Lead in a manner that enables you to contribute to your family, your society and even the world.” She believes it is important to make a difference – “beyond the almighty dollar.” Burt encourages young leaders to be grounded in faith beyond their understanding, and to be an “opener of doors.” She emphasized, “Don’t just make opportunity for yourself. Make it for others as well. If one prospers – so do others.”

Leaders like Burt make a choice every day to choose the path of pursuing greatness. They know that their life has a higher purpose and seek to fulfill their mission. She has certainly been an “opener of doors” in her life and has a made a significant contribution to our state in the process.

Up Close With Beneta Burt

Title: Executive director, Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity Inc.

First Job: ”My first job out of college was as a night shift directory assistance operator for South Central Bell.”

Favorite Books: On Leadership by Frances Hesselbein; The 360 Degree Leader by John Maxwell

Proudest Moment as a Leader: When, unbeknownst to my daughter, Twanda, I attended a session that she led with great compassion and competence. It was a very proud moment for me, in that her leadership style was very much reflective of the values that I also share.

Hobbies/Interests: Jazz, reading and travel

Martin Willoughby is a business consultant and regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of Butler Snow Advisory Services, LLC and can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.

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