One of my earliest leadership lessons came from my father.
When I was about 9 years old, I went to work with my dad on a Saturday morning. He was a research chemist, and spent much of his “off time” in the lab. I enjoyed going to work with him on the weekends because it was fun to write on the blackboard he had in his office, and get treats in the vending room.
On this particular Saturday we went into his building from the back door – near the loading dock – because it was a close walk to the wing where he worked. As we entered, the janitor, who wanted to say “hello”, stopped him. Dad introduced me to him, told me his name, and had me shake his hand. They had a great conversation about the weekend, what their plans were, and wished each other a good day. A nice man, I thought – very friendly and seemed genuinely happy to see my dad. We walked down the hallway, rounded the corner, and headed to his side of the building when another man greeted us. My dad introduced me to him as well. This man was President of the company. He also said “hello”, had a brief conversation with my dad about the weekend, and wished us well. He was a man who seemed equally as nice. I had watched my dad speak to them both, and realized that the manner in which he greeted them was the same, the tone of his voice during the conversation was the same, and the way he bid them farewell was also the same.
As we got to his office, my dad told me that the two men we had just met were probably the highest and lowest paid people in the building, but that they were equally important. He said that the thing that made them different were the opportunities that each of them had had in their lives for education and advancement. He told me they were both good people, and that it was important to treat them with an equal amount of courtesy and respect.
I’ve reflected on that experience over the years, and realize what a great leadership lesson it was. As I’ve had the opportunity to interact with different people in my life, I’ve always tried to remember that at the very basic level, we’re not that different. We are who we have become as a result of opportunities that have availed themselves, choices we have made, and how hard we have worked. But the level of stature we achieve in our jobs and in our communities doesn’t define any person as “better” than any other. In that one “teaching moment”, I learned that the level of personal respect we show to another human being is in fact the thing that matters most.
This is the kind of lesson that isn’t taught in books or business schools. Everyone wants to talk to the President. Not everyone stops to talk with the janitor. But as leaders, it’s important to remember that all human beings have something to offer that can make us better. If our role is to in fact to inspire and impact, making it a point to connect with all individuals is the most effective way to know how we can make a difference. Can we truly be effective leaders if the President is impressed but the janitor doesn’t care? Have we made an impact if the A student excels but the C student couldn’t be motivated?
My father recently passed away, but I carry this, and so many other stories, with me always. The importance of treating people right cannot be overestimated in the quest to develop great leaders.