I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of witnessing the “last of the generation" in your family pass on. Of course it is a sad day. Everybody recalling the good times, and the not-so-good. When you walk into the room, and see all the folks – family and friends, there’s this magical moment when everybody realizes that what you’re really there to do is celebrate a life.
It was a brisk blue-sky day in the Mohawk Valley, autumn leaves in a full array of red, gold and orange, when my husband’s extended family gathered to celebrate the life of his Uncle Robert. Since I had never met most of them, I didn’t know what to expect. I was soon impressed. Four generations, greeting one another, shaking hands, smiling; a great looking group of nice people. The younger ones especially showed themselves to be smart, appropriate, and well-mannered; obviously, raised right.
Robert’s pall bearers would be the grandsons and nephews, and as they flanked the casket, all eyes were drawn to the young man in full military dress, a waistcoat and sash, the definition of spit and polish. I learned he was a student at West Point, and currently ranks at the top of a class of several hundred of our best and brightest. Folks, it’s harder to get into West Point than Harvard or Stanford. I mention him because standing there, he was the obvious achiever, but all of them had something to recommend them. To put this into perspective, Uncle Robert was not “to the manner born.” He was raised in a very small town. He became an engineer, the first professional in the family. He had a great career, and devoted his life to his wife, his children, his community, and his church.
His legacy is relevant to leadership in this way: he touched lives, and that was evident simply by virtue of the people who showed up to mourn. As leaders, we often forget that it’s the lives we touch as much as the laundry list of titles, companies, major projects, and awards that define what we’ve done. What’s in our resume or on our Facebook profile is informative, but hardly complete, as it doesn’t capture the impact we have on people.
The more compelling evidence of the impact we can have is staring right back at us, right now, in the face of the people around us. Stick your head out the door. Look down the hall. Scan the room at your next staff meeting. Those folks that you advise, mentor, or counsel are your legacy. Maybe they’ve asked you for advice, perhaps they haven’t. But they could use it, and would accept it, if they knew you’ve offered it in the spirit of caring. And by the way, this extends home to your kids and grandkids. As a wise person once told me, “At a certain point you’re fired as a parent and auditioning to be an advisor.”
As a boss you can also fire yourself (even for a minute or two) from the bossy role from time to time, and be mindful of how you can help. I’ve often realized too late, or not at all, that I need to do this more often. I’ve missed many an opportunity. Take the simple act of a performance review. You are not simply judge and jury. You can be an advisor.
There are also many other opportunities; the ad hoc meeting called because there is a “crisis” at 5:30 pm as you’re walking out the door. The lunch you don’t have time for; the weekend call that interrupts dinner. It might not seem like a big deal to you. It is to them. Someday, they may look back and say to someone else, “That was a pivotal moment in my life.”
It’s performance review time in many companies right now, or it will be soon. In the heat of the battle of business it often feels like a check-the-box activity, even drudgery. Yet there are people looking to you, people who could use candor and genuine, meaningful support. It’s a privilege to be in the position to give it. It is incumbent upon us as leaders not to miss it.
My memory trigger will forever be the image of that young man, no more than 20, standing at attention in full military dress. I hope it will serve to remind me that I may not know now what impact I can have, whether directly or indirectly. Robert must have been doing something right. I’m guessing he was a man of few words, but modeled a way of living, and was there when people needed a sounding board.
Let’s vow, as leaders, to make the most of those moments we have to do the same.