I was sitting in a colleague’s office. I could hear a person on the other end of his phone from across the room, several feet away. It was tense. You could tell my colleague was pacifying an angry somebody.
We had gone through a downsizing event. I had facilitated the process for my part of the organization. The person on the other end of the phone was a director from a different part of the company altogether. He heard about an employee that the managers in my organization had chosen to let go. He knew my colleague, so he called him instead of me. I just happened to be in the room.
I could hear the caller saying what a travesty it was. Then he said the key words, “That could have been me.” He meant he had similar education, background, and accomplishments. I guess it hit a little close to home. He demanded an explanation.
My colleague got off the phone. He told me that I was going to have to prepare an explanation for that caller. He seemed to enjoy telling me that a little too much.
Thank goodness for happy accidents
If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised by how I responded. I gave him a version of this: If we entertained demands for explanations from random people, there would be no end to it. The process was confidential. That person on the phone was not entitled to an explanation. It would undermine a process that was designed well, for many reasons.
At that moment, my boss stuck her head in the room. She had overheard the entire conversation. She said, “Mary will not be providing an explanation to anyone and you can call that person back and tell him so.”
You never know when you will face a leadership moment
My boss probably had many of these moments. That’s why she was ready. I doubt she expected to encounter that particular situation as she started to walk down the hall that day. But she rose to the occasion in a moment.
I was grateful that I didn’t have to fight that battle further.
Handling the small stuff matters too
My boss didn’t earn my respect inadvertently. She was my thesis advisor. She was and still is a mentor. She encouraged me from the beginning to follow my instincts when something bothered me.
She backed me up or coached me in a variety of situations like this one. I was drawn to seek her advice. She would always hear me out, even when it was something she didn’t want to hear.
She knew I was growing unhappy as my twentieth year with our employer approached. Unlike others, she never made me feel disloyal or expected less than my highest performance. Her leadership inspired me to want to live up to her expectations.
It’s not always in big gestures that we find spectacular leadership. Many times it is in consistent, measured, thoughtful everyday actions.