Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.
With the television blaring, ten-year-old Daryl Boffman wedged between his sisters on the couch to eat his Thanksgiving dinner… a warm bowl of grits. As his mom sat down to join them, she began to openly pray over her bowl. With each outwardly expressive word of praise to God for this meager meal, Daryl’s inner confusion began to rise.
“I grew up in a family of poverty, in the ghettos of Norfolk, Virginia. We had nothing.” Roaches and rats scampering across the floor were common place. Food, electricity, and even water were not a daily guarantee.
As Daryl began to voice his total disbelief in his Mom’s blind gratitude, his older sister begged him to let it go.
Then the doorbell rang.
Someone had dropped off a Thanksgiving Day basket. The kids abandoned their grits and excitedly followed their mother into the kitchen. “We were finally going to eat a real Thanksgiving dinner!” While she was cooking, the doorbell rang again. There was a second basket at their door.
“The lesson I learned from my mom that day is that if you give God praise for the little things, He will bless you with others. You don’t give up. And, you don’t allow your circumstances to dictate who you are and how you react.”
Daryl’s father, a Vietnam Army veteran, struggled with alcoholism and became abusive after he returned from the war. After his parent’s divorce, he and his sisters, including one who is mentally disabled, were raised primarily by his mother as she juggled multiple jobs. “I grew up in a community where I had to literally fight kids to stay away from gangs and drugs. You couldn’t just say no. You either joined, or you paid the consequences.”
You don’t allow your circumstances to dictate who you are and how you react.
As a young teen, he began showing signs of stress and his mom took him to see a therapist. “I would look out of my bedroom window and see someone get robbed, raped, stabbed, or passed out or dead in the streets.” Exposed to these images as a young child, they still have a haunting impact on Daryl.
Yet, the intervention was a turning point for him. The therapist affirmed for Daryl’s mom, “This boy is smart. He can be anything he decides he wants to be in life. Continue to support him and keep pushing the positives.”
So Daryl began to focus on pushing the positives. He became very active in church and stepped into his first formal leadership role as president of his church’s youth ministry group. And out on the streets, he brought a different kind of energy. “My friends, the good ones, would come to my house and ask, ‘What do you want to do today?’” Daryl would concoct grand schemes for them — building go-carts, making movies, creating adventure. “When you’re poor and you don’t have things, you have to be creative.”
This vision propelled him forward. Daryl joined ROTC in high school and rose to the third ranking officer in the program, which helped him to stay out of school yard scuffles. “That’s not easy, because people call you ‘goody-goody-two-shoes’ and ‘wimp.’” Yet, he focused on his road map for what he wanted to accomplish.
He wasn’t a strong student, but fortunately Daryl had teachers who believed in him. One teacher, who happened to be named Dr. King, took him under her wing. She told him that to get ahead in life he needed to be able to communicate, so she enrolled him in writing and speaking competitions. “I was horrible, but I got to see what great students were doing. She got me to the point where I was a decent writer and could speak better than I’d learned in my community.”
While Daryl was accepted into Hampton University on a conditional basis because of his grades, he eventually graduated with honors. When his financial assistance only covered books and tuition, he fed himself with half of his one hundred dollar ROTC stipend, the other half he sent home, and negotiated with friends to do chores for them in exchange for a place to sleep. “It was tough, but I didn’t give up.”
You have to play the long game. If you take every situation and make it like a sprint, you’re going to lose in life.
After graduation, Daryl’s ROTC experience led him to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Here he entered the Army at the rank of lieutenant and was the only black officer in the entire tank battalion. From the first day when his captain refused to return his salute, Daryl found himself struggling against racial discrimination. Among many situations he faced, a white platoon sergeant refused to work under him and an earned promotion was held back by a captain who aggressively tried to get him kicked out.
“You have to play the long game. If you take every situation and make it like a sprint, you’re going to lose in life. I’ve learned to deal with things for an extended period of time, believing that a better day was coming.”
And better days did come. The platoon sergeant who refused to work with him eventually apologized and the aggressive captain was removed from the military after repeated patterns of discrimination towards another black officer. After four years, Daryl left the Army and entered the corporate world.
“From these challenges, I learned that I couldn’t work to the same level as my white peers because I would never get the same level of recognition.” Even in the corporate world, Daryl found he still wasn’t fully appreciated for his skill and expertise. Multiple times when he resigned from positions he was asked back with promotions and raises.
“Eventually I woke up and realized my value and decided to start my own business.” Into this new enterprise, Acela Technologies, Inc., Daryl carried with him lessons from his childhood that supported him in thinking long-term and enduring through difficult times. These lessons were undergirded by his faith in God that if he continued to do good things then good things will come. He honed his gift for creativity, his thirst for winning, and his ability to recover from rejection.
“I first approached prospective clients with this tiny business and a solution based on emerging technology that had never been deployed successfully. I was turned down over and over again.” Then Acela, got its first big break when the company landed a contract with the Ritz-Carlton to improve wireless services within their Washington D.C. hotel property. After a successful launch, the Ritz-Carlton lauded Acela for designing and building the “best city hotel product we have in the Americas” and creating a new standard for excellence.
From there, Acela surged to become a nationally recognized leader in providing state-of-the-art wireless systems, public safety communication, and information technology. Daryl often hired people with no experience, who had been rejected themselves, and taught them what he knew.
“As a young child, there were a lot of people that said I would never amount to anything.” Daryl is keenly aware that others have heard this too, yet they didn’t have his mother and his faith to balance those messages. When he hired a new employee, he reassured them, “I believe in you, and I’m sacrificing because I believe that you have what it takes.”
This approach inspired both loyalty and quality of service offerings, tied to the proprietary standards Daryl designed and built his business on.
There were many people who never gave up on me.
While developing people is Daryl’s gift, it’s also where he can get snagged as a leader — holding onto people longer than he should, even when they’ve proven that they’re no longer good for the organization. “There were many people who never gave up on me — and there were certainly reasons along the way that would have given them cause.” This influences Daryl’s drive to create an environment of fairness and opportunity, and to give others a platform to prove what they can achieve.
Daryl admits that he still struggles with holding on to people longer than he should, and it’s one of the factors that led to the eventual dissolution of Acela. “This was a piece of my past that came with me and created some challenges with being a CEO. I know what it feels like when your family struggles, when no one is bringing in a paycheck. And when I nurtured people to a certain level, it was very hard for me to let them go when I saw the company was in trouble.”
After a fifteen year run, where Acela grew to over fifty employees and received recognitions such as the Top 100 Minority Business Enterprise and Creative Firm of the Year, the company closed its doors. “When you’re playing in small contracts, you’re under the radar.” As Acela expanded to higher visibility clients supporting other major hotel chains, medical centers, and government projects, they became a target for Fortune 500 companies, which eventually eroded their margins.
“Even though my business failed, it was my first business and it lasted fifteen years. That’s an accomplishment that a majority of business owners aren’t able to claim. I’m proud of that.”
Daryl credits his servant leadership style as key to Acela’s successful run. Servant leadership manifested in the way he connected with his customers, giving them all he had and meeting their needs. It showed up in the way he championed his suppliers to engender mutual support of each other’s businesses. And, finally, in how he brought employees onto the team, treating them as family members, making sure they were trained, had the resources that they needed, and were paid a fair salary. “If you are known for treating people well, then when your time comes people are more willing to help you.”
After Acela closed, Daryl leveraged his life-long lessons of resiliency and has continued to persevere. Currently he serves as the Executive Director of Public Affairs for the Frederick County School Systems in Frederick, MD, where he had previously served both as a member and as the President of the county’s Board of Education. As a nod to his former teacher, Dr. King, he now oversees all of the communications for the school system — from television, to e-mail, to social media.
You can’t begin to know how things are going to look for you in fifty years. What you do have are roads in front of you now.
Daryl is well aware of the role that race has played in adding to his struggles and is passionate about promoting opportunities for minority businesses and eliminating achievement and opportunity gaps. “I never allowed my race to be an excuse to give up. Two hundred years ago, one hundred years ago, sixty years ago, the struggles were far worse than what I’ve had to deal with. And, still, there were people that continued to move forward.”
And Daryl has moved forward, too. Yet even with his career success, his penchant for over work has been hard to shift. “Especially when I was a CEO, I could feel that old Army captain breathing down my neck — never satisfied with what I did, even when I was outperforming my peers.” It’s been hard for him to slow down and turn this mechanism off, often to the detriment of his own health. “I’ve had to learn to focus on me, especially as I’m getting older.”
Daryl tries to remind himself now to listen when his wife and kids tell him to slow down and relax. “With my business, I was travelling so much and I wasn’t spending a lot of time with my family. I sacrificed so much.” Now, he’s enjoying connecting more with them and supporting them in their careers.
“As a young person, you have no idea what’s ahead of you. You can’t begin to plan how things are going to look for you in fifty years. What you do have are roads in front of you now. And you can either decide to look at the one that’s heading to where you think you want to be or you can allow yourself to just be turned off on any old road, not knowing what’s down that road, not knowing if that road is going to lead back to that main road… if it’s going to lead back to your life.”
“I’ve had some horrible experiences, but as I look back now, I’m thankful for the decisions I made, as hard as they were. Those times that I slept on other people’s floors… if I had to choose again today, I would have made the same decisions because I saw what that led to. If I had failed, I would have been back in my hometown and who knows where I would have been and what I would have done.”
In addition to acknowledging the struggles, Daryl also embraces the joy in his leadership journey — joy of all the lives he’s touched, joy because of the early decisions he made as a youth to follow his own road map, and joy in seeing the opportunities his children now have as adults.
In that first meeting with his therapist as a child, Daryl told her he wanted to grow up to be an Army man and a business man. He did just that. Looking back, he credits this roadmap, the support of others who believed in him and his faith in God as guideposts along his journey.
Learn more about Daryl Boffman and his work with Fredrick County Public Schools.
HAVE A STORY TO TELL?
Know someone who’s risen from ashes of adversity to become an amazing leader — learning to leverage their gifts while continuing to soften up the rough edges?
Maybe it’s you?
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Originally published at https://www.trueformleadership.com on January 5,