** Update: Subscribe to DaveUrsillo.com by email and you’ll receive the “Talk I Never Gave” as a gorgeous, 19-page e-book!! **

How do you tell a conference of 500 of some of the most talented and ambitious game-changers around that — in spite of their noble aims, world-shifting aspirations and even with their current successes — they’re all… kind of going about it wrong?

Well, at Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit (WDS) in Portland, Oregon this past weekend, I didn’t quite get the opportunity.

A few months ago I was totally surprised to have been selected as a potential speaker at WDS. All 500 conference-goers voted on about a dozen “attendee-led” workshop proposals, including my own. What I submitted to Chris’ amazing team of volunteers was called, “How to Lead Without Followers.”

Well, I never got the opportunity to present the workshop, but simply being included in that list of potential presenters (some wildly successful authors, speakers, bloggers, businesspersons and entrepreneurs) was truly an incredible and humbling honor.

And yet, as I sat in the crowd in Portland this past week — as one of five-hundred faces — I couldn’t help but drift into vivid daydreams of what I would say, and how I would say it, as if I was on that stage after all.

After red-eyeing back to Boston from Portland early this morning, I wrote the speech as it flowed to the forefront of my mind; raw and hardly-formatted, authentic and in free form. Read it in your head as you would on stage, in a group, in front of a crowd… or however you please.

Whatever you do, use your imagination.

The World Domination Summit Talk I Never Gave

there’s truly a special feeling among the room here– and I think you feel the same thing.

it’s not a pat-ourselves-on-the-back sort of thing. it’s an indefinable, indistinguishable, impossible-to-totally-describe sensation of what brought us all here. that’s what is so special about coming together for an event like this.

if it’s here at the World Domination Summit, or at a ballgame for your hometown team, or at a fashion show… you and that crowd of complete strangers are brought together for something beyond your differences.

there’s a sensation of unabashed unity, a common denominator among us, a shared foundation of support and learning that makes us each a complete equal to those sitting around you. you share a passion, an interest, a hobby, an “appreciation of,” and upon that humble basis you are suddenly interwoven with hundreds and thousands of amazing and unique people, in a very special way.

but what is it about WDS that feels so special to us here today?

in spite of the titles and taglines of all of the wonderful workshops and spectacular speeches this weekend in Portland, you know, I really don’t think that “special feeling” we all feel has been about attracting a following… or gaining popularity… or achieving mega-noticeable goals.

what has united us is far less about writing and speaking, or tweeting and SEOing.

so, what is it that brought us here?

Well, there’s location-independence, lifestyle design, entrepreneurship, authorship, blogging, social media and much more, but, even still, the World Domination Summit promises to one major encouragement… one special take-away… one thing, one reason why we’re all here: to lead.

Lead in your field, lead in your line of work, lead your life, lead among your communities, lead in your industry…

Yes, every one of these speakers is here to intrigue you, to entice you, to encourage you and to absolutely implore and even demand you to lead. Think to the shared message each presenter has spoken, the true reason that drew us here and that we each feel cascading and flowing between us in this room:

  • take personal responsibility
  • take the initiative
  • take charge
  • take the time
  • take a chance
  • take advantage of the moment
  • take hold of all of the wonderful opportunities that lay before you.

that. is. leadership.

but we don’t call it that.

what i’m here to ask you today is, ….why not?

How to Lead Without Followers

the message I’m here to deliver is an “alternative leadership” philosophy — really, a mindset. a different perspective on leadership and what it means to be a leader — that we arent used to hearing on the news, or discussing with people or simply thinking about in our own heads.

i call this alternative leadership philosophy, Lead Without Followers.

….what do you think when you hear that phrase? what sensation or emotions or thoughts spring forth from within you? if you’re like me when I first thought of this little phrase… do you think it’s backwards? nonsense? a complete contradiction? outright hypocritical?

to be honest, I wouldn’t blame you for saying right now, “you know, guy-whose-name-I’ve-already-forgotten-because-I-just-heard-your-name-for-the-first-time-and-really-don’t-know-who-you-are… you’re on stage right now, in front of a massive PowerPoint slide that reads “Lead Without Followers”… while you stand in front of an audience of 500 f$!*&ing people!”

….fair point :)

Before we go any further, we should step back. I want to introduce myself and tell you a little bit about my story. after all, the reason we’re all here is to connect with one another as human beings, and to share our human stories.

my name is Dave Ursillo (since you’ve all probably already forgotten)

I’m a 25-year-old writer from Rhode Island currently living in Boston, Massachusetts. And outside of simply calling myself a writer because writing is truly my deepest passion in life, I suppose I would also call myself a leader.

Although I’m not quite sure why.

when I was young, still watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and pretending to be a superhero in my backyard, my parents would tell me that my teachers said I was a leader among my peers. I had no idea what that meant, and i also didn’t care much (“…Did Mrs. Stanley mention that I scored 2 goals in recess yesterday?!”).

  • I’m not sure if hearing this as a young kid planted proverbial seeds in my head, but as I grew up and got to the age of around 12, I began taking a strong interest in government and the ways politics worked.
  • By 13 or 14, I felt like I could actually shoulder the responsibility of being a leader, and felt that I should take a huge leap of faith and run for class president, which would take effect the following year as a freshman in high school.
  • And then, by the age of 15, September 11th, 2001 occurred……….

…and suddenly, the need to be the best leader that I could be — in a world that appeared to so desperately need it — became the sole, single, solitary priority in my young life.

I naturally felt the draw of a leader, a calling to leadership, but who was I to lead?

From this point, my story goes a little like this:

  • 4 consecutive years of elected student government (didnt really like it)
  • recipient of the Military Order of the World Wars Bronze Award as an Army ROTC cadet with the Bay State Battalion in college (i write about flowers, not exactly a military dude)
  • contributing writer, sectional editor, and eventual editor in chief of the only official student newspaper at my Alma matter, the College of the Holy Cross, and acting as one of two student-liasons to the dean of students about on-campus affairs (i got named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit, which kinda sucked…)
  • meanwhile I worked and interned in 5 federal and state governmental offices over 6 years from 2003 to 2009
  • and as a “body man” (not body double… or body guard… or because of my incredible, hulk-like physique. the job woulda more accurately been called, “assistant bitch”) to a popular gubernatorial candidate in 2009

i found problems and had qualms with just about every one of these experiences, and was ultimately turned away from them or simply realized i was not enthusiastic and passionate enough about them to invest my career and truly my life into them as fully as i possibly could have.

…and i began to wonder what was wrong with me.

why couldnt i seem to find any true “fit” to my deeply rooted passion for helping people, and serving others, and doing good, and making positive change in the world?

why could i not find the right field of leadership that suited my talents and skills, as well as my passions and drives…?

what was wrong with me?

one night when i was still living in washington dc shortly after my White House internship and as the international economy truly imploded across the globe — this was even before i was a body man a few months later in 2009 — i found myself battling a very odd and uncharacteristic bout of insomnia.

i was sitting in my really nice apartment in the nation’s capital, feeling very lonely, and lost, and helpless.

and i couldnt sleep.

so, as a true writer, i grabbed my journal. it was a cool night but i wanted to be outside so i wheeled my computer chair onto my little cement patio, bundled up a bit and wrote to the glow of the street lights below.

……what was wrong with me?

i remember looking to the stars for answers, and hearing no response. i remember looking across the street and seeing dim flickers of televisions in dark apartments and wondering who was inside… what they were doing with their lives… what drove them… what held them back….

i remember replaying the experiences i just described to you, over and over again in my head. all those fields of leadership. politics, government, journalism, military, athletics…

and i tried in that moment to find the missing link.. the hiding key… what was evading me so well and spinning me into a confused and desperate state at 22 years of age. and then, i remember writing,

“I know in my heart that I am a leader. But who am I to lead?”

you see, ingrained in my mind was a social paradigm, a cultural meme,

something that dictated i was a follower, not a leader. that I needed to “work my way up” to be any sort of “real” leader. that i needed to play the game, invest my entire life proving something to someone for some set of reasons i didn’t agree with, but were (apparently) unquestionably unchangeable, static, stagnant, permanent and forever.

and when i thought of that possibility, i felt dead inside.

I refused to invest 10, 20, 30, even 40 years of my life or longer to “play the game”, to kiss up to powerbrokers and shake hands with assholes who think theyre better than you for wearing a nicer suit, and all for the possible opportunity to maybe, just hopefully, “some day” far away have barely a chance to maybe express my deeply rooted love of others and my want to serve people and my need to share kind and positive and intrinsically good messages to inspire others to live better, right now, and to help others do the same.

but everywhere i had been looking, there were rules, regulations, confinements and constrictions that made you play the game.

in a system that requires you to play games with real human beings, encourages to throw out your moral character and your values…. who even knows if by the point where i could have possibly done some good by elevating my way through the system, reachign some place or position of genuine power and status and influence… who knows if I’d even still be a shred of my former self… or if I’d just be another corrupted, compromised “player” who cut corners and cheated himself out of who he truly was… just to get ahead.

i read that line over and over again in my journal:

“I know in my heart that I am a leader. But who am I to lead?” and in a moment that i will always remember, without knowing what i was thinking or why, i wrote, “Is it possible for one to lead, without having others follow?”

and suddenly, everything that I thought I knew about leadership changed.

what is leadership? and what does it really mean for someone to be a leader?

One’s ability to lead — your drive, your passions, your talents, your loves and wishes, your dreams — your ability to lead your life by good example, by your own choosing and in your own unique ways….. who says we need others to give us permission to do that?

does anyone outside of our individual self  give us power or permission to take charge, personal responsibility, to take positive action, to fight the status quo, to overcome acts of evil and indifference, to inspire, to take up the torch and carry it on, and on, and on, in the darkest of nights?


no. the answer is simply, No.

And so for what reason would we ever say that you are not a leader… because you do not have followers?

and command an audience of hundreds? or wear a fancy suit? or get called Senator or Congressperson? or make 6-, 7-, or 8-figure salaries a year? or drive an expensive car?

don’t these things, these social qualifiers of success — that we all innately recognize and subconsciously believe qualify someone as “successful” and “powerful” and “influential” and, thus, an “expert” or “pro” or “leader” — are not these things what corrupts people, and distracts our attention, and clouds our judgement, and stains the purity of our souls?

why should we rely upon these things to tell us and the world at large that we are leaders when we can lead by noble and good example more purely and freely and boldly without them??

….although the name of this session is “how to lead without followers” the truth is that here today, i’m not going to deliver the “how” part, only the “why”.

now is simply the time to deliver the “why”.

because somehow, some way, i think i want to leave it up to you — each and every of you, in your own unique way, in all of your walks of life, with your own ambitions and longings and dreams to guide you — to determine the “how” for yourselves.

*Update 6/8/2011 – thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve received from this piece, I’m acting without hesitation to begin writing a comprehensive e-book on Lead Without Followers… :)

Flickr photo credit: Chris Guillebeau