In January 2021, I had just arrived at my office in the Pentagon and was prepping for a meeting when I got the notification. I’d been selected for Secretary of the Air Force recognition. Given that the U.S. Air Force has more than 600,000 in total personnel, this was a tremendous honor.
I felt like I was in a dream that morning. I pushed my chair away from my desk as my eyes filled with tears. To get this recognition from the top leader of the U.S. Air Force was incredible — and unexpected. As I started to reflect on how I’d gotten there, I began thinking about integrity and the role it’s long played in my life. I pass these 5 lessons onto you:
- Do every chore and task wholeheartedly, whatever it is.
It’s not that people who get recognized, whether locally or globally, don’t deserve the honors, but often they don’t anticipate them. Awards are not what drive them in the first place. As I chatted with the 25th Secretary of the Air Force, what my father said to me when I was an 11-year-old kid rang true. It was six a.m. in rural Lagos, Nigeria and I was doing my daily chore, sweeping the hallway of our home with a traditional African broom. Our terrazzo floors meant you could feel any dirt underfoot. My father noticed I‘d missed a spot, and gave me wisdom I’ve carried with me ever since: “Wherever you find yourself in life, whatever position, no matter how big or small, they are equally critical. You are there because you were meant to be, so you must embrace it, own it, and never compromise your integrity, no matter what, until the very last second while you’re at it. You never know what it’s preparing you for.” I live by this code, and I recommend it: When we commit to any chore wholeheartedly, others become inspired by the high standards we hold ourselves accountable to, and many will take pride in what we do.
- Anything you do could be preparing you for something amazing in the future.
How does missing a spot while sweeping relate to the integrity my father was talking about? I didn’t think my father cared about the chore itself. But he cared about my daily commitment to wake up every school day, pray, and sweep the long hallway, the family living room, and the stairway before my three-mile walk to school. He also cared about being able to walk around the house and not track dirt around — and I took pride in my task. Even on my worst days, his constant assessment and confirmation made me hold my duties to a high standard and go for consistent execution.
Since then, I have seen how every moment of our lives is connected to our future. We never really know where our now is taking us. We have dreams and usually imagine a future we can build toward. But most of us will find ourselves where we least expect to be, possibly doing our least favorite thing for a living. When we try to walk our way back to what we think we should be doing, we may still end up where we started.
If we lose patience with what we’re doing in any given moment, we jeopardize that integrity, which is the core of our existence. Everything we do now prepares us for something greater to come.
- Listen to those with more experience than you have and take their words to heart.
When I moved to the U.S., there was no one I could rely on or call a mentor. I had spent my entire life until then figuring things out for myself. But in a strange new place I only knew from movies and social media, that independence and self-reliance were not enough. I realized I had to start over if I really wanted to build a solid future, and I had to put myself out there. That meant seeking out experienced people willing to explain what I needed to know, what options aligned with my interests, and what it would take.
When you find people who have the knowledge you need, listen to them. Thankfully, I found a lot of people willing to help and provide the information I needed to succeed — and their wisdom and experience helped me map out my journey.
- Approach each and every action with integrity.
At the age of 11, I still had the choice to either follow my father’s advice or find a clever way to get around not fulfilling his expectations. Kids often look for a way to outsmart their parents. But I didn’t. If anything, I was disappointed that my dad found that spot of dirt. Even then I took pride in perfection when it came to any task I’d been entrusted with, especially if it came from him. It wasn’t just that I wanted to make him proud — I did. But I also liked the way it felt to beat expectations. Later in life I approached every task the same way, whether cleaning and cutting meat in a meat factory or working as a sales rep — despite my having a medical degree, I did the very best I could.
Integrity is a constant. It’s up to us. It shows in how we think, what we do, how we treat others, and how we want to be treated. Do better than expected.
- Success isn’t just about what you do, but how you do it and the integrity you put into it.
After moving to the U.S., I served for a few years in the U.S. Navy before I was selected as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force. Due to the sensitive nature of my new job, I had to secure a security clearance, which required an extremely high degree of security investigation. A few days after my interview with the special investigator, I began receiving phone calls from organizations and people I had worked with but hadn’t talked to in a long time. Neighbors from old addresses called, and new neighbors stopped me on the street to tell me they’d been interviewed about me. Friends and church members called to say a special agent stopped by to ask them about me. All it would have taken is one bad report from any of those people, and all my hard work would have been rendered pointless. But I passed.
Think of everything you’re going through now as preparation for that future you’ve always dreamed about: every position, task, and chore. You never know the reason for those lessons, but you will soon enough. Stick with your integrity. It will serve you well and take you where you need to be.
Written by Dr. Deji Ayoade.
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