Early lessons in leadership – #3.

One of the things I find valuable about taking time for reflection is that it helps us understand how we became who we are.  The key values that shaped me as a leader can be traced to encounters that happened early in my career. Here’s a story about learning the value of compassion; it goes all the way back to my days as a hotel manager in Cincinnati.

One of our most loyal, hardworking housekeepers, Georgina, hurt her back. She was no spring chicken, and it was clear that she could no longer handle the physical labor of cleaning rooms. The problem was, she needed that job, and she didn’t really have any options.

So, I created an option. Back then, hotels used a PBX switchboard to handle all the phone calls that came into the hotel and to connect calls between rooms. We had an opening for a PBX operator. The qualifications required a clear, hospitable speaking voice and knowledge of the PBX system. Georgina had the loveliest voice you can imagine — I can still hear her slight drawl and the sincere warmth of her greeting. But when I proposed the job to her, she panicked. She was afraid of the PBX machine, afraid she’d mess up, and afraid to move away from the familiar work (even though it was killing her) to try something new.

I had the weekend off, so I convinced Georgina to come in and, for two days, we ran the switchboard together. By Monday, she was ready to fly solo. Her sweet greetings made customers glad they called our hotel, and she continued as one of our best employees.

Georgina was grateful, to be sure, and that felt good. But in truth, I am in her debt. In that weekend, she taught me the value of compassion — of recognizing others’ vulnerabilities — and the satisfaction of finding the right solution for everyone.  It was one of the best weekends I can remember in a long career. Today, when I’m tempted to ignore my feelings and just “stick to business,” I think of Georgina. I’m still trying to be the man she thought I was back then.