Recently, I was catching a flight to do some culture change work with a client in Philadelphia when it seemed like everything that could go wrong, did. When I arrived at the airport the flight had been canceled and the only remaining flight for the evening was already full. I was then booked on a flight that connected in Dulles but that flight was delayed and I was clearly going to miss my connection. The fun continued with a series of bookings and re-bookings that ended with me catching a flight to Baltimore, instead of Philadelphia, and driving another two hours to my destination, arriving there at 3 AM.
Anyone who’s ever been through this kind of travel experience knows the frustration that can mount as you talk to person after person who you hope can help you and yet feel like you are making no progress, or that things are even getting worse. And yet, in this situation, by the time it ended, I was laughing and kidding with one of the gate agents and perfectly happy to make my drive in the wee morning hours. The reason I wasn’t frustrated or upset reminded me of a choice that every one of has but that we often fail to use.
See, as I was running from gate to gate, being further delayed and less optimistic about my changes of getting to Philly by morning, a child, running through the airport laughing, caught my eye. As I looked closer, I realized that the child, who I’m guessing was about two or three years old, had no arms. As I watched him, he ran to his father and was lifted into the air giggling by a man who obviously, as I noticed they were different races, had adopted or was fostering the boy. As I looked closer at the couple, it was clear that they had three children with them, all challenged in some way and all not biologically theirs. They had made a choice to make a difference for these kids. And clearly, each of these kids had challenges far greater and far more permanent than me losing a little sleep that night.
In that moment, my flight delays seemed so minor and trivial that I ceased to care about them. It occurred to me that I could have made that choice even without the catalyst of seeing the boy and the family. And next time I am frustrated or angry at some set of circumstances that aren’t fair or convenient I could make the choice to think about the boy, see that image again in my mind, and once again transform my attitude, my outlook and my actions.
Leadership is about making those kinds of choices as much as it is about anything else. First we have to make the choice to even head down that path of becoming a leader, where we keep score based on helping others accomplish more for themselves. Where we create new opportunities for others through helping them realize their potential or even change an organizational culture so growth and sustainable success are available for everyone. Then we have to make the choice to lead ourselves in a way that helps us become someone who can make those things happen for people, for businesses and even for communities.
Those parents made those kinds of choices and they, along with their kids, led me to a different place right there in the airport. More importantly, they helped remind me that I have the ability to lead myself anytime I choose to. They will never even know they helped me think differently. They won’t get any recognition or pats on the back for doing it and they had to make some really hard decisions that put them in a position where they made my life better, simply because I observed theirs for a moment.
Every time we are faced with a choice, we get the opportunity to lead. We may not know who’s watching, where the choice will lead us or how we will accomplish the things that lie in front of us because of it. But in that moment, we know which choice a leader would make. And we have the power to make that same one. Leadership doesn’t always come in a speech or a grand event. Sometimes it happens in a small moment, with no real rewards, in an airport.
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