It was the early 1990’s and I was happily working away minding my own business at a job that I really enjoyed. I didn’t think much about leadership and didn’t have to, since no one reported to me and I had an excellent professional and personal relationship with my boss. Part of my enjoyment of my work environment was that the organization had around 200 people, so it was big enough to feel like you were part of something substantial, yet small enough that you could feel as if you knew most everyone and were connected to them.
And oh, the people! There were a number of employees who had worked there for nearly 2 decades (a remarkable thing even then, but almost unheard of now). These folks were loyal, hard-working, and for the most part, treated each other well. It very much felt like a form of extended family. In retrospect, I realize that one of the primary drivers of this culture was the firm's leadership, and most prominently from our president. The company president made a point to know everyone’s name, their spouse or partner’s name, and typically something about their interests or hobbies. He was held in high regard and I had the sense that people genuinely liked and respected him.
Then, what I came to call The Troubles began. We were acquired by a major national firm, and we went from our nice tidy collection of 200 souls to being part of an organization of around 100,000, spread across the country. There is no doubt, of course, that a culture change was inevitable, if for no other reason than the shift in sheer size and scope. And not surprisingly, one of the immediate changes was that our President--the one who knew you and your spouse and treated you well--he was out, replaced by an outsider acting as a regional manager.
The thing I found most fascinating was my sense that our team members had been prepared—eager even—to take all the loyalty, dedication and goodwill that they had amassed over time, and willingly offer it up to the new leadership like a beautifully wrapped gift on a silver platter—transferred from the former “Inspiring Leader” to whoever would take his place. That was apparently our unspoken plan. All good here. Ready to go. Just waiting for New Inspiring Leader to show up and pick up where the last one had left off.
Except that’s not what happened at all.
The proverbial silver platter was dropped on the floor, the offered gifts dismissed and discarded. The new organization didn’t seem to know what to do with concepts like loyalty, commitment and personal relationships. It didn’t run on those things the way the previous place did, so it didn’t seem to expect or value them. And as a result, I saw many team members slowly become disillusioned, disheartened, and distant. Our expectation that the next Inspiring Leader would basically take up the mantle didn’t happen. And to be fair, there was little chance that it could have happened within the brave new world in which we found ourselves. (And by the way: my intention is not to disparage the acquiring organization, but rather to point out the power of people-based leadership and what can happen in its absence.)
What those of us who were left hadn’t realized was that our world had changed far more than we thought it was going to. There was not to be any more benevolent, personalized leadership. And as the shock and reality of this sunk in, it dawned on me how I had taken it all for granted. It was “the water we swam in,” so it was hard to really notice it until it was gone. And for me, its absence really hurt.
Until one day, a realization appeared; aka, my "crucible moment."
As I was getting ready for work and thinking about all that had happened and how much I missed the former leadership’s approach and presence, these words came into my head: “If you’re waiting for the next inspiring leader to appear, you need to look in the mirror.” In that moment, I realized the folly of relying on any one individual to provide meaning, recognition and belonging. If I wanted those things in a sustained and reliable way, I actually had an opportunity to create them for myself, and maybe to also be a source of those qualities for others.
I left that company and have spent most of the ensuing working years (so far, anyway) connected with smaller organizations, where I’ve been privileged to lead teams of people whom I took the time to get to know, and about whom I cared. I've been a stand for creating that sense of meaning, recognition and belonging that I believe most of us crave at a deep level. I have found that it is an approach that is not only effective, but deeply enjoyable as well, and I’ve had enough positive feedback over the years to be convinced that it works.
The Troubles taught me a lot, and while it was definitely not what I would call a pleasant experience, it was incredibly useful, and gave me one of the most valuable leadership lessons I have yet learned.
What about you? Do you have a “crucible moment” related to the power of leadership? I’d love to know!