Monday, July 6, 2020

Everyday Moments Define Leaders

Guest post from Gregory P. Shea, Ph.D.:

It took a while, but we got it: we were all in crisis.  Many of us still are, especially the most medically and economically vulnerable both here and abroad.  All of us will face moments of challenge and even crisis over the coming months.  So many moments will seem small and yet they will prove definitional.  They will define who we are as leaders, particularly for those whom any of us would lead today or tomorrow.  They will constitute our leadership moments.  I offer the following story in the spirit of us staying focused on our personal leadership opportunities, be they born of position, status, rank, reputation, health or wealth and in the service of our acting as we and those we might lead would hope.

Leadership—good or bad, it lives in moments
It was a Sunday in January.  I was to give a talk on Monday morning in San Juan.  Tough Duty.

I left my family got to the Philly airport well in advance of the 8:30 am flight, the second direct flight of the day to San Juan.  (I had decided that I didn’t need a 7:30 flight on a Sunday morning!) I settled in at the gate area and surveyed my surroundings. My fellow travelers already filled the area to overflowing.  Three staffed service podiums hummed with activity as families of mouse eared travelers in tropical leisure wear moved about in anticipation of a flight to connect them to a Disney cruise departing San Juan.  Good vibrations bounced about and filled the space. Three generations talked and played. 

No Gucci bags or Rolex watches.  This was, I suspected, for many there a three generational trip of a lifetime, probably long in the planning and great in anticipation.  As a parent traveling alone and as a multiple time visitor with my family to Disney World, I took it all in with quiet delight.  I enjoyed the view and the memories.

The first announced flight delay got my attention but did not precipitate worry.  Our plane was coming from Europe, a direct flight, and any delay in a direct overseas flight leads to a bit of head scratching for a seasoned traveler, but my companions seemed completely unfazed.  Perhaps they were right, however inexperienced— ample time remained for them to reach their ship before it departed San Juan that evening.

The second delay moved me to act.  I called American Express and began backup planning.  No, there were no more direct flights from Philly to San Juan today.  How about to Miami?  Lots of options leading to late arrival in Miami.  I secured a ticket complete with free 24 hour cancellation and returned to my seat in the waiting area.  I’d work out a flight to San Juan once I touched down in Miami.  I’d work out the problem of sleep later.

Doom arrived on a bun.  The airline announced free lunch coupons for all travelers.  Happy Day!  Figuratively, I shook my head at the happiness swirling about me.  

Families rushed forward to gather their coupons for free burgers and fries.  Ignorance was bliss, at least for this moment.

Then came additional activity at the service podiums.  A young man in a blazer and tie showed up and began speaking with all the service agents.  I supposed him to be a supervisor.  Another man arrived; he wore a suit and tie.  I supposed him to be a manager.  They all huddled.

As a student of leadership, I took special notice.  I surmised that something bad was about to happen, more particularly that the next delay would jeopardize making San Juan in time for the Disney cruise departure…and that announcement of that delay was imminent.  Just so the leaders had showed up to explain and to support.  Good for them.

Then the supervisor and the manager left.  They left!

I moved to the far side of the service podiums.  I wanted a good view of the coming debacle.
An announcement of the anticipated disastrous delay came.  The room exploded.  Mouse eared adults stormed the service podiums.  The scene unfolded as would an assault on the walls of a medieval castle with the assailants reaching over the parapets as they generated a near deafening noise level.  All with nary a supervisor or manager in sight.  They had fled the scene.  No walking the line of distressed assault.  No timely words of praise to their people.  No intervention to pull aside the most upset of customers and so relieve some of the steaming pressure on the front line.

The designated leaders had left.  They had chosen to leave their people on their own.  They had used their power, their discretion, to remove themselves from harm’s way.  In so doing, they had failed their leadership obligation to their people.
As Aristotle said long ago, “Rule shows the man.”  Updated: ‘Power shows the person.’  It wasn’t a pretty picture.  Illustrative yes, pretty, no.  I could all but see the shadow of the moment casting forward, reaching well into the future of leaders and followers alike.

Gregory P. Shea, PhD, president of Shea and Associates, Inc., consults, researches,
writes, and teaches in the areas of organizational and individual change and leadership. He is adjunct professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and of its Aresty Institute of Executive Education, senior fellow at Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change, adjunct senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at Wharton, and senior consultant at the Center for Applied Research. He is the co-author (with Cassie Solomon) of Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work.

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