One of my most memorable lessons in leadership and its attendant responsibility came via the improbable pairing of a wise high school teacher and a spiky-haired toy. . .
The guy who sat behind me in Mrs. Crawford’s English Lit class liked me. A lot. This was a total mystery to me because I did not give him the time of day. Nevertheless, he persisted: could he help me pass out papers when it was my turn? Need a study partner? —he was up for the job. He probably thought I was playing hard to get, but truly, I just wasn’t that into him.
I sat in the front row, close enough to the teacher’s desk that Mrs. Crawford could easily see the goings-on of the shy seventeen year old boy vying for the snooty teen girl’s attention. One day, after leaving my desk to sharpen a pencil, I returned to find an orange-haired troll doll sitting on top of my textbook. I picked it up and glanced at my would-be friend who was watching me earnestly. Clearly, it was he who had proffered the gift. My disdainful look said it all: A troll doll? How lame!
I cut my eyes over to Mrs. Crawford, who had seen the whole thing. Her normally cheerful demeanor was stern as she mouthed “Be. Nice.” I turned back around said a grudging “Uh, thanks, Bobby.”
Not surprisingly, my presence was needed at the front of the room when the class dismissed. While everyone else filed out of the room, I sullenly trudged up to Mrs. Crawford’s desk. When we were alone Mrs. Crawford asked in her kindly manner, “Jenni, would it hurt you so much to be nice to Bobby?”
“But, Mrs. Crawford!” I protested. “He’s SO annoying.” (Said with the dramatic emphasis for which teen girls are well-known.)
“Why do you think Bobby pays so much attention to you?”
“Because he admires you.”
Mrs. Crawford told me that when someone looks up to you, it’s important to understand that it is a gift, not a burden. She explained that sometimes people who excelled in school (me) were seated next to shy kids (Bobby) to be a help to them. The point was not whether or not I liked the troll doll, the point was that Bobby made an offer and I rejected it. While she didn’t come right out and say it, the message was clear: I was not fulfilling my potential as a role model.
It was on that day many years ago that I began to understand this valuable leadership lesson: when people admire you they are placing their trust in you. They are acknowledging that they value who you are. To refuse that trust because they are “not interesting” to you is to is as rude as refusing a gift that’s given. Not only is it a breach of basic common courtesy, it’s a lack of leadership manners.
Over the years, I’ve had many leadership opportunities. Some have come with titles (Mom, Project Manager, Supervisor, Committee Chairperson) and others haven’t (co-worker, friend, school volunteer). Whether or not the role has a capitalized title or not, life has taught me to remain vigilant: never refuse the leadership gift that is a person’s trust.
photo courtesy of http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/