There are lots of books and discussions about the meaning of leadership. You could spend literally thousands of dollars on texts that suggest they know the real definition of leadership. While many of these probably can give you a good theoretical view, and some may even come close to giving you a picture of what leadership looks like, I don’t think you really understand it until you see it in action. In a very bad situation this week I got an opportunity to see an extraordinarily good example of leadership take place.
Our agency recently announced some of the most severe layoffs in its history. As you can imagine, this has caused an enormous amount of unrest and pain throughout the organization. Some of the folks losing their jobs have been with the agency for 20 years or more. It is a painful and heartbreaking time, but unfortunately one that could not be avoided.
It would have been easy for our executive leaders to hide behind the veil of budget cuts and simply hand down the mandate of these layoffs. One person in particular though demonstrated exactly what it means to be a true leader. Our Deputy Director came around to speak personally with each of the individuals directly affected by the layoffs. He had no personal agenda other than to touch base with them, see how they were faring, and to find out how he could be supportive. This process has been exceptionally difficult for him, watching people he has worked with for years struggling and having to go through such a difficult time. His professionalism, patience, and willingness to really listen and be compassionate as they shared their fears and frustration was invaluable. Throughout, he maintained his composure and let people vent, express their feelings, and share with him their fears. He put no time limit on any of these conversations and it was clear that he was there for them. I happened to overhear one of these conversations and was moved to email him afterward to commend him on his strength as a leader. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was about the encounter that made me see leadership, until I overheard one of the (laid- off) staff who was involved in the conversation remark, “He has this amazing ability when you are talking with him to make you feel like he is 1000% present and that you are the most important person in the world at that moment.” What more is leadership than engendering a sense of value and worth in those that work for and with you so that they are encouraged to do their best, even amidst the worst of circumstances?