Two years ago today, I stood in my kitchen talking to a few team members via video call on GoToMeeting. My home phone rang. I let it go, and it ended, then started again.
The caller ID indicated a local number, and I had a brief flash of concern that it might be my daughters’ school, so I stepped away from the computer screen to pick up the call.
The voice on the other side of the call shared some devastating news. I can’t work, she said. I just got a call. My husband. Plane crash. Afghanistan.
I barely knew what to say. I asked a few questions. I fumbled with supportive words. The call ended quickly.
The young woman who called me had only worked a few weeks as a subcontractor in my company. We had met in person a couple of times. Though I am not sure exactly what transpired for her that day. one of her instincts, upon learning that her husband had been tragically killed in a terrible accident, was to call me.
A boss of mine used to talk about how influential a leader’s words are for the people who work with them. He described a person’s supervisor at work as one of the most influential people in their lives, with incredible opportunity to be a determining factor in each person’s life and happiness.
I heard him say or write it a dozen times — or more. While it connected to me, on some level, I always listened from an employee’s perspective, thinking and considering how my bosses at various jobs had shaped me and observing my husband to see how much he seemed affected by the leaders in his organization.
I saw my boss’s words more from the negative perspective: a bad boss has the power to make a person’s life exceedingly miserable. Those negative experiences are the ones people share more often, the ones that loom as significant.
Because of that, despite my boss framing his perspective in the positive difference leaders can make, I didn’t understand his perspective clearly until I began leading others as the owner of my own company.
And the depth of a leader’s influence didn’t really touch me until the day my team member lost her husband.
While I had been happy to get to know her, and hopeful about our work together, this team member viewed me as important enough to reach out during the most devastating moments of her life.
I’ve stayed in contact with this team member over the years since her loss. We shared lunch in my kitchen, months after her loss. She is exceedingly brave and resilient. She is making a huge difference in the lives of the other women who lost loved ones in that day.
Her presence in my life is a poignant reminder of the difference I can make as a leader, in a positive way, for the people who work with me. While being present in the worst moments matters, every word and interaction matters.