I recently had the pleasure of attending a local United Way of Central Maryland event where Carolyn Colvin, the acting commissioner of Social Security, spoke about leadership.

At age 74, Colvin is an inspiration, an authentic voice tempered by years of hard work, courage and wisdom.

She shared how she started her career as a typist and realized from a very young age that to have greater impact and fix the problems she saw around her, she had to take on increasingly more responsibility. Thus began an upward trajectory culminating in her 2013 appointment to the head of social security, where she oversees 50,000 employees across the nation.

I relate to the feelings that started her on her journey—especially those about stepping up to more accountability to have greater influence on the world. In fact, in my own career, I can only think of one time when I turned down an opportunity, and it’s one that I still wonder about, as every other time I’ve accepted a new role it’s yielded tremendous opportunities for growth and produced tangible results.

But I do also love that Colvin recalls that feeling of wanting to create change, and she uses it to empathize with and understand her employees. Colvin’s respect and care for her colleagues is palpable.

She said that she recently sent a request to her staff asking them what they would do differently if they were her. Inspired by this, I recently asked my own team the same question, and I received great suggestions, one of which I am ready to adopt today.

The suggestion is an annual project that would function somewhat like grant in that teams of three or four staff members would submit proposals to do their “dream project.” The only stipulation is that the work would have to further Johns Hopkins’ mission. Each year, senior leaders would choose a winning team, and the groups’ schedule would be cleared for a designated time to focus solely on the project. They’d also receive funding for the work!

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