Rita Davenport is a woman who walks her talk—and her talk is no mean thing. An award-winning speaker, Rita has received the coveted CSP and CPAE awards from the National Speakers Association. She is also a best-selling author, her five books having sold over two million copies.

For 15 years, Ms. Davenport produced and hosted her own award-winning television show and produced a cable television show entitled “Strategies for Success,” which was viewed in over 32 million homes. On her show, Rita had the opportunity to interview celebrities and leaders from all walks of life and accomplishment

In 1988, Rita joined a network marketing company. Starting with zero network marketing experience, a starter kit and unstoppable faith and confidence; within six months she had climbed to the company’s number one spot in sales and sponsoring. Not long afterward, she was invited by the company’s CEO to step into the President’s chair, where she has sat, or stood, ever since. She continues today to inspire, motivate and train others to transform their lives.

“When I was in elementary school,” Rita recalled, “I brought together a group of kids for a fund-raising event; it was very successful.” We’ll bet it was.

— JMF

 

If I look you in the eyes and say, “Rita, you’re a leader,” what do you think and feel when I say that?

I think it is a gift to be able to lead people. Not everybody can do it, nor would everybody want to. It’s daunting, actually, because it’s an immense responsibility.

For whatever reason, I seem to have been born with this responsibility. In junior high school, I was president of the student body, about 800 kids. Throughout school, I was always in the student government, captain of the cheerleaders, very active in school functions. People have always looked to me for leadership.

I think this was because I was always very outspoken, not afraid to speak my mind—and at the same time, very supportive. I’ve always cared about people. I’ve never felt that I needed to be a leader for my own gratification or glory—it’s always been to help people who couldn’t help themselves.

Right out of college, I became a social worker. I told a school friend what career I’d chosen, that I was a social worker now, and he said, “Yeah? What’s so different about that? You’ve been doing that all your life!”

I did that for only a short time, because within a year, I’d learned that instead of feeding people, I needed to teach them how to feed themselves.

For a leader, the greatest gift is the ability to communicate. Growing up in a very poor rural area of Tennessee, I was completely unaware of myself having any special or particular skill. I thought it was something everyone had; I didn’t have the perspective to appreciate how important that gift was.

Years after I finished high school, I was talking with a high school friend who’d gone on to become very involved in Tennessee politics, and I said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me that I had a talent for communication?” He said, “Oh, you knew that.” But in fact, I didn’t. It was only later—really, by accident—that I discovered that I was given an assignment in life to help people and to communicate. I knew it was to help people, but I didn’t know of the importance of being a communicator.

 

Do you ever have any conflict about being in leadership positions?

Yes, sometimes. I tend to be a very service-focused, enabling, co-dependent sort of person; sometimes I let myself get physically and emotionally drained. There have been times when I would have rather not had any leadership responsibility, when I would have rather just been more playful. But I knew that was not going to be my life; I was never going to just kick back, as some people do, and let things happen as they may. I’ve always felt the need to make things happen. It’s like a constant tug in my heart to do what I can to help other people.

 

Have you ever had to wrestle with your ego, with this whole business of being a leader?

Absolutely. The biggest challenge we have is to control our ego. In some cases, your ego can be healthy. An ego can support you and make you the most you can be by having some pride in what you do. But anybody who is at all involved in leadership needs to understand this principle: it is amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit. Don’t look for credit—that will undermine your every effort, every time.

I teach my people that the importance of being a leader is to empower their people. When you see other people up there on stage, in the limelight, receiving awards, getting recognition and being given gifts, remember this: what every mentor wants is to see their mentee outdo them.

I have to admit, there’ve been times when I have felt a little left out, because I knew what I’d done to contribute to this person’s success, I knew what a difference I’d made. But then I remind myself: Yes—and that’s what I’m here to do. It’s easy to forget. We’re human. “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to receive a little of that adulation?” Sure—but that’s not what works for a leader who really cares about her people.

In moments when your ego rears its head, you just need to come back to earth and remind yourself: why am I doing this? People ask me this all the time: “Rita, how do you do this? Traveling from hotel to hotel, getting off one airplane and getting onto another, driving and all this, how do you do it?!” The answer couldn’t be simpler: I do it because I love it. It’s not a burden, not even slightly. If you love what you do, you’ll never “work” a day in your life.

A healthy pride in what you do can be a positive force—but a far greater force is to be humbled by what you do. I constantly feel humbled by the successes I have—by the growth of my company, the success of all my people. I constantly tell my top leaders, “When you get to the point where it’s not about you, where it’s all about your people and their success, then you’ll be so successful you won’t even begin to know how to spend all the money.”

When it’s about other people, you always become successful. You have to. That’s just how the world works.

 

What other qualities, talents, skills are required to be a leader?

You have to be charismatic and enthusiastic—and if you’re not, you have to become that way! Not everyone is born charismatic and enthusiastic. I gave birth twice—and neither baby was happy or laughing at the time. You can learn to be charismatic and enthusiastic. These are traits you can embrace and absorb, simply by being around people who are like that.

To be successful in this business, you have to be a persuasive person. Being persuasive is all about being enthusiastic about what you’re selling or promoting. Again, it’s enthusiasm.

As a leader, you also need to be in as good health as you can possibly be. You need to learn how to relax, to meditate, to exercise appropriately, to eat the right foods, to be careful about what you consume. You need to be very involved in physical fitness. My job is physically draining, so I have to be at the top of my game.

The most important part of being a leader is to be approachable. I’ve been around “leaders” who are not approachable. I think an open door policy is very healthy.

The things it takes to be good in our business are simple things that anyone can learn. They may not seem simple to everyone, but I believe they truly are.

It’s important to have integrity, which means letting people know what your values are and then sticking to them. You need to stand for something. Once, in my broadcasting days, I was interviewing John Wayne. He said, “Lady, if you try to please everybody, you’ll never please anybody.” He’s right: you’ve got to stand up for what you believe in. It’s the old saying, “You need to stand for something—or you’ll fall for anything.”

 

Speaking of broadcasting, did that career help to prepare you for leadership, or to further develop the leader in you?

Absolutely—and you’ve done something quite similar. You’ve spent years interviewing some of the best and brightest minds, both within and without our profession—Seth Godin, Marianne Williamson, Lynn Grabhorn, Tom Schreiter, Richard Brooke, Zig Ziglar, and on and on. Making yourself an earnest student and intent follower of the best is one of the most direct paths to being a great leader.

It’s the same thing Napoleon Hill did, with Andrew Carnegie and all the other great men he interviewed. Today we revere Napoleon Hill—and it’s easy to forget that he came upon his timeless, classic insights by being a great follower.

In my broadcasting career, I had the opportunity to interview people that millions of others looked up to and respected, even revered, and I learned from each one of those people simple truths that played a powerful role in my becoming who I am.

And you don’t need to be a career broadcaster or journal editor to do that. The great leaders in this business are quite approachable; you just need to track them down, look them up, ask them questions, and listen. You don’t have to be published to be a good interviewer!

 

Is it hard to be a leader? Is it a sacrifice?

Being a leader takes discipline, because there’s truth to the adage that “it’s lonely at the top.” I travel a lot, and constantly miss my family and home. Even though I’m with lots of people at trainings and meetings, I still return to my hotel room alone. As a leader, you come to value the people who are your confidants and supporters. I’m still best friends with the people I grew up with.

In a leadership position, you have to be careful whom you talk to and what you say, you’ve got to be a little bit objective about who your real friends are. Being a leader also means you can’t always be one of the gang.

Now, I love to relax with my people, to play around and have fun. I love to laugh. But there are times when you’ve got to keep things private.

Erma Bombeck once said to me, “Rita, when you live in a fishbowl, always keep some facts about your life to yourself. It’s in good taste. Don’t tell all your problems. Half don’t want to hear it; the other half think you deserve it. And it’s flattering to have a little mystery about yourself.”

Erma, of course, was very famous, yet
she lived a very private life. I was not at all famous at that time—but she said she thought I might be some day, so she coached me about this. I naturally tend to be a very open, very frank, down-to-earth person. I’m a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person—but I’ve tried to follow Erma’s advice, and learned to be careful about what I say sometimes.

 

Has being a woman hindered you or helped you as a leader? Has your gender been more of a challenge, or an asset?

No question, an asset. Women are more intuitive, and good leaders are intuitive. A good leader also knows about the importance of being able to do several things at one time, and I think that multi-tasking sensibility comes more naturally to women than to men. As a woman, I am also more emotional; I lead with my heart, and don’t make any apologies about that.

At the same time, sometimes I actually make an effort to think like a man. I’ve been married for 36 years and have two sons, so I have a great deal of good male influence in my life. My mom used to say, “Man was the first pancake—God was testing the batter.” In other words, God made men and then made women to correct his mistakes. My husband says he did it like that because he didn’t want a lot of suggestions. I don’t necessarily believe that. I love being around men.

I was a tomboy when I was growing up. My brother was kind of sickly, and I used to protect him. Then I grew up and became a woman—but I’ve always had an appreciation for how men think. Sometimes I put on my testosterone hat and try to think like a man. It helps me use more of my left brain and be more objective.

 

What does “thinking like a man” look like for you?

I love the way men can tell each other what they think and not hold it as personal. Men are not as inclined to carry grudges as women can be. I think one of the biggest challenges there is for women is to learn not to take it personally. To know that this is business, to not be so offended when people give you their opinion. Men can even be combative, argue, call each other all kinds of names—and then go play golf on Saturday, business as usual!

My own CEO is a person of integrity whom I respect enormously. Sometimes, when I’m faced with a difficult decision or interaction, I ask myself, “What would Steve think about this?” He would say, “Rita, why are you getting so upset about this? Why are you taking it personally? Look at the big picture!”

Also, women are more gatherers who tend the garden—while a man’s impulse is to go out, kill something and drag it home. To some extent, that’s what you have to do in our business. I don’t mean being ruthless—but focused, determined.

 

So you don’t think of yourself as a woman competing in a man’s world?

I don’t think I’m in a man’s world. Network marketing is predominately women. Our company’s founder selected a female as president of his company because we have a predominance of women.

There are many outstanding men in leadership positions in our business, and I think women like to have men in leadership positions, but they also feel they can trust and relate even more to women in leadership positions.

 

If I came to you and said, “Rita, I want to be a leader,” what would you advise me to do?

Observe other leaders, analyze what they do that makes them good leaders. Are they thoughtful, understanding, caring? Are they determined to be a success and make a difference?

To be a leader, you need a caring spirit for other people. You have to care about other people enough to sacrifice your own time, because it takes time to support another person. Leaders make themselves aware of other people’s needs.

Being a leader means taking risks. You need to let yourself be guided by your instincts. We all know what to do. Our know-how is most often way ahead of our do-how.

You have to be extremely loyal to people.

You have to listen to people—which can be a special challenge for people with a real speaking ability. For me, speaking is my daily bread, and I’ve had to work hard to really listen.

Be very careful about the example you set for your own people, because what you say and do will come back to you. What goes around truly does come around.

Some people complain that if they had a good upline, they would be more successful. I’ll tell you what, though: to succeed in this business, you don’t need an upline, but you do need a downline! If you think you don’t have a good upline, here is the solution: become that good upline.

In some ways, not having a “good upline” is a benefit. If you have a leader who does everything for you, you can become very weak and enabled. If you aspire to be a leader, constantly stretch your people with the observation that they can do what you expect, and then raise your expectations.

The truth is, the best way to succeed in this business is to be a leader—and that means, to simply decide who and what you’re going to be. The decision, consciously choosing the mindset, comes first, it precedes your accomplishments—not the other way around. And that means, it’s not important whether other people see and appreciate you; what matters is that you have people that you see and appreciate.

 

If you had to choose the single most important trait of a leader, what would that be?

As a leader, your number one success skill is to be appreciative of any contribution a person makes. Give credit to other people—and it
doesn’t work to make it up. In order to give credit, you have to find it first. You have to discover what it is in another person that you can acknowledge.

People in lower positions need even more encouragement than your top people, because they don’t get that appreciation or acknowledgement. Especially when they’re just starting out, your newer people need far more encouragement than someone who is seasoned. Leaders need to understand that in this business, as in life, you meet the same people going down that you met going up. Be good to everybody.

Most people don’t feel good about themselves. I’ve read that only about five or six percent of the population really feel good about who they are, what they do for a living, how they have lived their lives. Most people don’t feel successful. I teach them how.

Like George Bailey in Frank Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, people need to become aware of how important, how valuable, how wonderful they are.

Toward the end of her life, Erma Bombeck was on dialysis. When her last book came out, I congratulated her on the massive advance she’d received for it—$14 million! She looked at me and said, “Rita, I would rather have a kidney that worked.”

What are your kidneys worth? What are your eyes worth? What are you worth? You are priceless. I’ve learned not to take for granted those things that I am so blessed with. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself!

If there’s any gift that God has given me, it is that I make people aware of their own greatness. I make people aware of the fact that they are capable, that they can do a lot more than they ever thought they could. Most people have been negatively programmed; I’m all about reprogramming them for success. I’ve seen people come into this business so insecure and fragile, with no confidence or no belief in themselves—who now get up in front of thousands of people to speak, motivate, train. It’s amazing!

This business is not about your product; it is about empowerment. It’s about building people’s lives. It’s about helping people reclaim their lives. That’s why I got into it, and why I’ll never leave it.