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.