Look for them and celebrate them whenever you can.
Here is the thing about being a leader, you don't necessarily need to be in a "leadership position" to lead. Do you remember the kid in high school who had lots of friends....a leader. How about the kid on the playground that everyone followed....a leader.
The classmate in college that everyone listened to and hung on her every word.....a leader. We are surrounded by people in our lives who lead, we just don't always recognize it.
I admit it I am a student of human behavior. As a 20+ year educator, I notice everything and pretty much talk to everybody. I try to smile at strangers, speak kindly to people and make eye contact whenever possible. Because of these practices I often find myself talking to people with whom I might not ordinarily interact. This is exactly what happened on a recent trip to NYC.
I recently flew to New York City from my home in Rochester, NY to visit a friend who was going to be moved to hospice from Memorial Sloan Kettering. I was excited to see her but not sure exactly what I would encounter. It was going to be a quick trip, fly in on Friday and fly home on the last flight out of JFK to Rochester on Saturday night. I booked a hotel room near the hospital and reached out to a friend from high school to see if we could grab a bite while I was in town.
As the taxi dropped me off at the Memorial Sloan Kettering entrance at 66th and York around lunchtime on Friday I steadied myself with a deep breath and entered the hospital. I was greeted by a security guard who kindly asked me what room I was visiting and if I would like to put my suitcase in the coatroom. I was struck by the kindness in his voice and the warmth with which I was greeted. Most people who enter Memorial Sloan Kettering in NYC are doing so with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are either fighting cancer themselves or are there in support of a loved one. Being greeted in such a way put me at ease and almost made me forget the angst I had been feeling. That evening was a wonderful visit with my dear friend and her family. Because of the number of visitors and the toll her disease has taken on her body, it was decided that on Saturday she would have no visitors from noon to 3 so she could rest. I contacted my friend Nick and we decided to meet for lunch somewhere in the neighborhood at 12:30.
At noon on Saturday I went down to the coat checkroom to get my coat and I was greeted by two new security guards Mike and Shaquille. I started a conversation with them by asking if they had recommendations for a lunch place nearby. Mike enthusiastically spoke of a little Italian place within walking distance, Shaquille interjected "Patsy's?" Mike said no, that it was a "mom and pop" restaurant and was trying as hard as he could to remember the name and address. Mike asked, "Does your friend like Italian?" I said, "As long as it is good Italian, his father owned an Italian restaurant."
I turned to Shaquille and said, "Patsy's, I don't think I'd name a restaurant that, do you know what a Patsy is?" Shaquille shook his head and I said: "Well a patsy takes the blame, say Mike here was taking money from Memorial Sloan Kettering but made it look like you were the one who took it you'd be his Patsy." Shaquille quickly replied, "I'll never be anyone's patsy, I'm a leader." Impressed by this young man I said: "What's your name?" He said "Shaquille." I asked him If I could call him Shaq. His response was "You can, yes, but not everyone is allowed." My next question "Shaquille, how old are you?" His response was "All you need to know is that I am in my prime!" Mike and I looked at each other and bust out laughing. "Oh, he's in his prime huh?"
Mike remembered the name of the restaurant and I pulled out my phone to look at a map. Shaq asked me if I had google maps, I said I've got a map app here, look at it. Shaq palmed my phone and said "What is with ALL these apps? You've got ALL these apps and not Google maps? Who ARE you?" I laughed and said, "I'm a 46-year-old mother of two from Rochester who needs to find this restaurant!" Our friendly, funny, and warm conversation continued until we figured out where I was going. I texted Nick and told him where to meet me.
As I walked the few blocks to the restaurant I couldn't stop thinking about Mike and Shaquille and what an important role they play at Memorial Sloan Kettering. They are the first interaction anyone who enters has. Many who enter have a mixture of emotions and having their first encounter being warm and kind makes a difference. While I waited for Nick to arrive I requested two gift certificates and wrote a note on each one for Mike and Shaquille. The essence of my note to them was that what they do matters and they are positively impacting so many people!
Nick and I had a great lunch and I told him about Mike and Shaquille. Of course, after my recitation of the funny conversation we had, he wanted to walk me back and meet them. When we entered the building Mike was there but Shaq was not. I introduced Mike to Nick and he enthusiastically asked us how we liked the food. We raved about the food and I told him I had something for Shaquille and for him. He was able to call Shaquille on the radio and he came down. I told them both how appreciative I was of our earlier conversation and my friend was so impressed by what I told him that he HAD to meet them. I gave each of them a gift certificate and told them what they did matters to so many. Shaquille said "Wow, this is amazing. I really needed this today. Do you know what I've been doing for the last hour?" "What I asked?" "I've been working with the morgue." Right then it dawned on me that although they have other, often somber, responsibilities, Mike and Shaquille still made warmly greeting visitors a priority and did so with enthusiasm. Mike too thanked me for the gift certificate and we posed for pictures, talked about jazz, NYC, Rochester, the Rochester Jazz Festival, how to drive from Connecticut to Rochester, the difference between having an old soul and a young spirit, and joked some more. Nick and I hugged, kissed, and vowed to do this "again soon." I got on the escalator to go to the 14th floor and I looked back and said: "Remember what you do matters, I appreciate you!"
I had to leave for JFK at 7:00 and I reluctantly left my friend's room and headed back downstairs to get my coat and suitcase. I looked at the security desk and Mike and Shaquille were gone. At that moment I actually felt a strange combination of loss and love. I was sad that I wasn't going to be able to say good night to them but so happy that I had met them. Mike and Shaquille impacted me in ways I never thought possible.
My first book is a book on leadership. It is written through the lens of a superintendent for others who want to go into educational leadership and possibly become a superintendent one day. As I reflected upon my experience with Mike and Shaquille I realized that they too exhibited the leadership DRIVERS I write about. One doesn't have to be in a leadership position in order to be a leader: just ask Shaquille.
Leaders are among us, look for them and celebrate them whenever you can!
In love and friendship,