Who are the great leaders?

by Rick on March 8, 2016

Great Moments, Not Great Leaders

Great Moments blog 1.docx

“Who are the great leaders?” When I was asked this question at a conference recently, a 15-month-old popped to mind, and I found myself telling a story about a moment a couple of years ago when my wife Victoria and I were waiting in Los Angeles Airport for a flight to San Francisco.

We had just been told that our flight would be delayed, and as we grumped into our seats at gate 70A to wait, a family of four caught our attention on the other side of the concourse. A woman with a 15-month-old on her hip stood calmly with her husband while their two-year-old son attacked his stroller in a rage.

We watched this painful scene in empathic agony for a while. Then Victoria said, “Look! A couple of your clients.”

I smiled at her joke, but as I kept watching this family in pain, I got an inkling. “Hmmm. A couple of my clients,” I said to myself. I watched a little longer, and then, taking a small risk, I got off my seat, walked across the concourse and went up to them with no idea of what I would say. As I got within smiling distance, I smiled. When I was in speaking distance I said: “I just want you to know how impressed I am with how well you are handling this difficult situation.”

They both smiled, relaxed, and we started talking about kids as the two-year-old continued to rage on.

While we talked, the mother put her daughter onto the terrazzo floor of the concourse. Barely able to walk, this little toddler toddled over to her big, raging brother and gave him a hug. He hugged her back, his rage subsided and peace returned to gate 70A at LAX.

As I told the story, I realized it was a story about a great moment, not a great person. Victoria had exercised leadership by saying: “Look a couple of your clients.” I took leadership by deciding to do something—I didn’t know what. The mother exercised leadership by releasing her daughter, who showed up as the hero of the scene. It’s as if that 15-month-old had been sitting on her mother’s hip saying, “Put me in, coach. I know how to handle this situation.”

And we shouldn’t ignore the father who exercised leadership by standing calmly, doing nothing, just being there. Each of us defined ourselves to the situation in our own way and our leadership brought out the leadership in others. Yes, Carl Jung, there is a cosmic unconscious.

leaders - Google SearchHerd animals that we are, humans have a propensity to look for alpha individuals as exemplars of leadership, people who can be counted on to keep us safe and victorious. But looking for leaders to emulate and follow is a distraction from the real work of life.

“Just be yourself,” they say. But it’s not that easy. We would like to think that we are “good enough and smart enough” and that people will like us, but the truth is that each of us is a dynamic complex of relationships struggling to fabricate a coherent front. Objectively speaking, we don’t cohere, and no leader can save us—they are all messes, too.

Hope lies in the reality that the only reality is the present moment, and in this moment we have the choice to lead or to cower.

“Character” keeps getting a lot of attention mostly as another word for morality. But character as a set of virtues distracts us from the task at hand. The task always at hand is to be our character.

Our life could be “a tale told by an idiot.” We can strut and fret our “hour upon the stage” hoping some leader will come along and lead us out of the mess we are in. Or we can keep working on our lines, engaged in the creative process of being the unique characters we are meant to be. DSC00170We can act as if we are in communion with a bunch of other characters who are also looking for opportunities to create moments of grace, beauty, truth, justice or love. We can see challenges as opportunities for us to practice our lines. We can keep defining ourselves in ways that bring out the leadership in others.

Happiness and success requires that we stop looking for leadership in others, and start leading our lives.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

John S Green March 8, 2016 at 5:00 pm

Thanks, Rick. Such a heart warming story. I have begun to ‘hug’ the ones who I had been critical of—positive connection is much easier and effective than negative coercion.

Gary Gruber March 10, 2016 at 9:26 am

You have the capacity to look beyond the obvious and find such great opportunities for engagement and meaningful, purposeful interactions without having to analyze or judge either the situation or the person. If others would take this illustration to heart and do what you did in everyday encounters, the world would be a much more beautiful, peaceful and enjoyable place to be, for everyone. Thank you!

Jon Madian March 10, 2016 at 10:02 am

Well, well done, my friend! Ditto, you have a gift for seeing, telling and writing; it comes through beautifully in this piece. Been thinking recently: What if God had been a Systems Thinker rather than a Hierarchy kind of “thought leader” back in Garden of Eden days. How different Adam and Eve’s experience could have been.

Hierarchy by nature, and the nature of evolution, seems to lead to judgment, shame, guilt and so on. Whereas systems thinking says if something’s going badly, its the system’s problem and the system needs to figure out how to fix it. And since we’re all part of the system, stop judging and start shoveling, witnessing, smiling… perhaps we’re saying the egocentric ego lets go and the sense of other(s) steps forward.

Shanti Elliott March 10, 2016 at 10:42 am

BEAUTIFUL! Thanks for this heart-opening story, Rick!

Matilda Giampietro March 11, 2016 at 6:24 am

Thank you Rick Ackerly. This is the first time I have read your blog. I like it very much, I like what you write about all of us being ourselves as the way to move the world forward.



Marty Dutcher March 11, 2016 at 6:48 am

Great story, great point of view to adopt. I’m stealing it: we live moment by moment, and the quality of life is determined by each moment: whether the status quo of the moment continues, or whether we, through the quality of our engagement with another or others, shift the nature (context) of the current moment. I didn’t realize until I read your post that that is the nature of my passion for our work with families and children. This is so rich. You trusted your “inkling” and took a relational risk. And thus you did it without judgment, and the context of the moment shifted, allowing love and acceptance. And, of course, the two-year-old jumped at the opportunity! Thank you!

Rick March 11, 2016 at 10:19 am

Larry Arnstein sent in this story and question: Here’s a recent event in my life I’m proud of, not a very big deal, but it made me happy. As you know, I’ve been volunteering at this social service agency which provides services to the homeless population in Santa Monica. (Bad news: it’s getting larger all the time.) Those of us who sit behind the counter as we enter basic info from the clients in exchange for a meal ticket, and encourage them to make an appointment with a case manager or take advantage of the doctors and nurses who are there, sit in old, squeaky chairs that sometimes sag downwards without much warning. Anyway, the chairs we sit in aren’t very good, but it was clear to me that if I asked for new ones it wouldn’t happen, because there are a lot of other, higher priorities. But the chair I sat in was really bad, so I went to Staples and got a new one for $65. “Some assembly required” so after an epic, two-hour struggle, I had it put together. Then, next Monday I took it with me. Everybody admired it. The following Monday, as I was arriving, a whole new set of chairs was being wheeled in to the place for everybody. They had so envied my new chair that they decided they should spend the money so everybody on the staff could be comfortable! They all thanked me! I’m not exactly a leader of men, but for this moment, I felt like one.
Only thing I didn’t quite get is your praise for the father who stood around and did nothing. I realize that sometimes that’s a good thing to do, but in your story it seemed to me that the father could have tried to help. Just as well he didn’t, so the story could play out as it did.

Rick March 11, 2016 at 10:23 am

Larry, Thanks for your story. As to the father exercising leadership by doing nothing, I would say there is a bit of wisdom here: Even though you are dying to fix a situation, it’s often best to do nothing. Often parents try really hard to fix an intolerable situation and only make things worse. Sometimes the right move is to “Just say anything,” but sometimes the right move is just to bear witness and say nothing.

Cowboy in the Cloud March 11, 2016 at 10:24 am

great article, rick. i can imagine you in that scene. well done.

who did you call a cowboy walking down the driveway @ CDS?

look me up. i am on to hot new technology with tremendous educational implications.


Lauren March 14, 2016 at 11:19 am

I never assumed great leadership existed, only humans taking advantage of a moment to be their very best selves. Our childhood was rough, but one of the best moments of leadership I have to date, and will always remember, is my baby brother pushing a bully that was teasing me. He was four, I was seven. Even then, alpha or not, my brother understood humanity. He also understood what it took to give voice to the voiceless…that moment changed me and it changed him. That was his genius and still is.

Rick March 14, 2016 at 11:35 am

Such a nice example, Lauren. Thank you.

Allan Stern March 16, 2016 at 1:08 pm

I’m returning some books this morning at the local public library. In line in front of me is a mom with her maybe nine-year old daughter. The daughter is lovingly holding a book. It looks brand new. The mom explains to the librarian, “My daughter lost this book and we looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. So we bought a copy at the bookstore — with her money — and are giving it to you, to replace the lost one. Hope that’s OK.”

The librarian said, “Yes, of course it is,” and they processed the transaction.

Standing and watching all this, I couldn’t resist channeling my inner Rick Ackerly. “Hmmm,” I said to myself. I turned to the mom and said, “This was a great teachable moment, and you handled it perfectly. Your daughter has learned a life-long lesson really well.”

She just beamed.

Rick March 16, 2016 at 1:54 pm

I’m beaming, too.

Maria Omari March 18, 2016 at 9:04 am

Thank you for sharing. It’s always a pleasure reading your stories.

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