Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with James Barnett, founder of Clothe Your Neighbor As Yourself (CYNY). His inspirational story shows what it means to be a true leader and surrender everything you know and throw off everything you are comfortable with to make a difference.
How Clothe Your Neighbor As Yourself was born
“I was making a lot of money and I started to question if that is what God desired for my life,” Barnett said as he sat with one leg crossed over the other. He continued to tell of how comfortable his life was–the perfect job, all the material possessions he could have ever wanted–yet he sat there with a contented smile as he told about how much happier he was now, with virtually nothing. In a radical effort to help him gain grips of reality, Barnett decided to sell all of his possessions, every single thing he owned and move out onto the streets where he spent nearly the next two years of his life. “I decided to get in the right state of mind, so I went and lived with the poor.”
Out of this bold life-choice, Clothe Your Neighbor as Yourself was born. CYNY is an organization that strives to make a difference in the lives of its neighbors. “We are not so much about clothing as we are about neighbors,” James said. “Our neighbors are our enemies and are overseas just as much as those that live next door.” CYNY is set-up as a non-profit organization that sells shirts to raise money to help out its neighbors in a variety of capacities. Every dollar that is raised goes to helping people, our neighbors, where they are and where they need the most support. Sometimes that support means helping kids in Kenya receive an education by providing school uniforms and sometimes, it means helping that man on the street holding a cardboard sign get a pair of shoes and socks. As Barnett continued, you could hear the emotion, excitement and passion in his voice, “After spending time with my friends in Tallahassee, I realized they need shoes and socks. So, I designed and printed some shirts to sell to youth group and the idea spread like wildfire.” Those shirts are what started this incredible movement.
Every move that Barnett makes and every step he takes with CYNY is always focused on empowering and helping others right down to the threads in the t-shirts. The organization has carefully chose American Apparel as their t-shirt supplier, not just because of quality, but because of the story behind how the shirts are made. From the plant to the press, the shirts are threaded, sewn, dyed, and printed by people who are treated with utmost respect and care by their employers and in turn care for the earth, the economy and the world. All of the strategic decisions help further the mission of CYNY on a level that many people will never see.
James Barnett on Leadership
It obviously takes a great deal of courage and ambition to close the door to your comfortable home and walk away from it forever and resorting to living from a van traveling to dozen of cities while meeting countless people with deep, life-altering stories. One of my favorite questions to ask any leader is this, ‘How do you define leadership?’ Without hesitation, James spoke up and said, “I’ve always thought that you can’t lead people to a place where you’re not. So, to become a leader, you must first become a servant. When you can do that and show people you’re in that place, they’ll see your lifestyle and it will be contagious.”
That is a powerful and true definition of leadership. It is vital that leaders meet people where they are. Leadership is not confined to a title but defined by a lifestyle and James Barnett has certainly illustrated that throughout the course of his life. Even in his email signatures he shares his life passion by saying, “Saving the world one naked person at a time, James.” Even Barnett’s outlook on business is so unique yet powerful. He says, “The goal of any non-profit should be non-existence. If your heart is for the poor, you don’t want them to be poor forever.” As he explained this he basically said that if your goal is to make a difference in the poor community, your desire should be to make such an impact that there is no reason for you to be around anymore because you have resolved the problem.
James Barnett’s story is truly powerful. His story isn’t one that encourages people to go live on the streets. Instead, his story is one that should inspire us as leaders to see a need and make a difference. What keeps you awake at night? Are you willing to step outside of your comfort zone, whatever that may be, and go inspire those people towards a positive change? Are you willing to initiate a movement that impacts the world one person at a time?
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