Leadership in Real Life: My Inspirational Night with Thought Leaders
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending an awe-inspiring night at UC Berkeley. There was about 40 of us, the honoree was Professor Barry Schwartz (Ted Talks here…yes, plural, he’s quite amazing) whose career has focused on how we approach our work, how we glean satisfaction from that work, and why we sometimes decide to stay even when there is no hope of satisfaction.
The evening was framed that we would hear Barry’s thoughts on leadership, especially within corporate America, while in this very intimate setting. What I didn’t know, was that we were going to kick off the evening by a few of us sharing our own experiences in the workplace. In a way, Barry has never experienced corporate firsthand (academia life is it’s own thing), so he looked to us for reference points and stories to shape the discussion. It was lovely to be included and have this extraordinary event even more personalized.
The first gentleman had opened up a rehab clinic in the mid 90’s when heroin abuse and addiction was at an all time high here in the Bay Area. He was incredibly successful at getting 100’s of people straight, back on their feet, and building a life where they could contribute and overcome their addictions.
Two things I pulled from his story:
1. People are always paying attention. To your actions, your decisions, your casual comments…and that includes clients, co-workers, bosses, everyone. Make sure you do what is true to you, what you know feels right.
2. Part of what made him who he was that he was unabashedly honest, almost pure.
The time came where he was overwhelmed and needed to promote someone to a supervisory position. There were many people already working for him as support staff and they had their pecking order if you will. Because he was black, most of them assumed he would promote someone else who was black. He surprised them all and promoted the person best fit for the job. They weren’t next in line, they weren’t there the longest, they weren’t a favorite, they weren’t what pleased the crowd, and they weren’t black. They were what he needed to do his job better. For him, it was an easy decision.
2 of the clinic rehab guests pulled him aside that day. They were dumbfounded at his choice of hire. “We’ve been watching you. And you treat everyone the same. Black, white, hispanic, new, seasoned, young, old. We didn’t think you would keep that up, but you have.” He was of course surprised they had taken such an interest. “I don’t see color, I see green!” Spoken like a true businessman. There’s something to be said about someone who speaks what he feels, who does what he does because it just makes sense.
James is an 87 year old retired doctor. He was dressed to the nines in his 3 piece suit. His composed, soft, and soothing presence made you feel like getting in your cozies around a fireplace while he told you his story. I couldn’t help but want to embrace this man. He had been retired for some time now. And yet every year, on his birthday, the nurses from the hospital still (and we are talking decades later) called him up, gathered around the phone, and sang him happy birthday.
To. This. Day. That’s a legacy of his leadership. That’s someone who impacted lives, who was and is beloved, who left a legacy that is still rippling. I was honored to be in the presence of this very peaceful outdoorsman who had cared so much about the people who surrounded him, his patients, his team, that they wanted him to know that all these years later, he was still thought of and cared about. What an honor.
Linda shared how she was working for a company that shouted from the rooftops their inspiring mission, one that she could really get behind and support. She was more than willing to do her part, the company’s mission was her mission, she was 100% on board. What pulled the rug out from underneath her, was the culture within the company was toxic. It was ego-based. Leaders held out on communications, kept secrets, one-upped the other, threw each other under the bus, and did whatever necessary to move themselves forward. Yet, the company did nothing to change this eroding morale. They just shouted louder about the mission, not able to look under the covers. She held on, supporting them, holding on that: “eventually they would get it right”. They had to, their words were so powerful, eventually all this silly competitive stuff would no longer be tolerated. I couldn’t help but wonder if they ever would get it right. From an outsider listening, the chances seemed pretty slim. When a toxic culture takes over, it becomes incredibly difficult to keep your own head above water. You feel like you are struggling to stay afloat, and everyone is pulling your ankles trying to take you under. When I went through my acquisition, I had a similar experience. Eventually, I realized they were not interested in getting it right. Actions do speak louder than words.
But it’s a difficult question that I think happens more often than we realize. How many of us are “waiting for them to get it right?” And what do you do in the meantime?
I shared my story too. It was at that moment that I realized what a perfect case study I was. Before our acquisition, work was utopia. We had owners who cared about us, a team that worked incredibly well together, we got the work done and had fun in the meantime, we were good-busy, creative, purposeful, and driven by what we were doing. I could literally go on and on. I think about what happened post-acquisition that changed it all. Let’s see. Pre and post acquisition everything was the same: the team, the building, the clients, the mission, the work, the business model, the operations. The only thing that changed was the leadership. Our owners sold and a new C-suite took over. And the unraveling began. My team and I held on for a really long time. We were so incredibly strong that we could handle the struggle, but it was hard. I did my best to protect them while keeping them informed at the same time. This will definitely be a longer post another time. But it was heart-wrenching, and all that had changed for us was leadership, that tells me a lot.
What story are you creating right now? What will be your legacy? Is your leadership building something and someone up? Do you have the emotional stamina and commitment to be true to you? Will people be thinking fondly of you when you have moved on?
I think they will. I believe you can do all of it. I believe you know what you must do, and I believe today, tomorrow, and the next day…you will show up as who you are, 100%. Your team will always know: you got them.
I love you guys.