June 4, 2015 / 2:09 PM / in 2 years

How three leaders worked their way up from the (very) bottom

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Are leaders born, or made?

New York Knicks new head coach Lenny Wilkens shouts instructions to his team, as they play the Seattle SuperSonics in the second quarter of their NBA game at New York's Madison Square Garden, January 16, 2004. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

There is plenty of debate on the issue, but one thing is certain: Most leaders do not start out at the pinnacle. They begin their careers on the bottom rung of the ladder just like everyone else.

With that in mind, as part our Reuters’ monthly series on First Jobs, we talked to a few of America’s top leadership gurus about the first gigs they ever had.

The key takeaway: From humble duties come powerful life lessons.

Lenny Wilkens

Hall of Fame NBA player and coach

First job: Selling fruit

”I worked with a fruit peddler, going through my neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn selling fruits and vegetables. It was on a horse and wagon, believe it or not. I was very young at the time, around 10 years old, so I helped bag stuff and make sure people didn’t steal anything from the wagon.

”My dad died when I was only 5, so I started working early. My cousin worked for that fruit peddler and helped me get the job. I remember I learned how to feed horses properly, because once I gave the horse an apple and almost got my finger taken off.

“But what I really wanted to do was just hang out with my friends in the streets of Brooklyn, playing stickball and box ball and stoop ball. Kids were very creative then, because we didn’t have any video games. With the money I made from my job, I remember I used it to buy model airplanes and spend all my free time with balsa wood and glue.”

Brian Tracy

Management expert and bestselling author

First job: Nursery assistant

”One of my first jobs, during high school, was as a sales support person at a large nursery in a big city. My job was to back up the salespeople who were working with customers by carrying the plants and shrubs they were selling up to the front and loading them in the customer’s car.

”I noticed that the other sales support guys would stand around behind one salesperson until he had made a sale. I was impatient, so I would move quickly from salesperson to salesperson, eventually running most of the time, back and forth, carrying plants, loading cars, and then running back to do it again.

“The more I worked and ran, the more exhilarated I felt. I did the work of three people. I got promoted over and over. I loved the experience, and it set me up for life. In every job I ever had after that, I volunteered for more work, did it quickly and well and then asked for more work.”

Margaret Keane

CEO, Synchrony Financial

First job: Debt collector

”I lived in Queens (neighborhood of) New York City at the time, and Citibank put up an index card at the student center of St. John’s University, looking for people to work in collections. This was back in 1980, which was a really bad recession, and they were having lots of problems with delinquencies.

”It was very scary. I was fairly young at the time, around 19, and had to call people up and ask them to pay their bills. It took a lot of courage just to pick up the phone.

”At the time people had no money, they were losing their jobs, and I heard lots of very sad stories. They just poured their hearts out. Most people want to do the right thing and pay their bills, but life circumstances can cause them to get behind. I had to be sensitive and compassionate, but at the same time be firm. It’s a tricky process.

“When the financial crisis hit in late 2007, I asked to listen to some of our collectors, and had flashbacks because the calls were just as desperate as when I started in 1980. That’s when I knew things were going to get really bad.”

Editing by Lauren Young and Steve Orlofsky

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