Leading with grace

In a recent study on civility in America, Weber Shandwick found while 93% of people surveyed believe America has a civility problem, 92% described their workplace as civil.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I read an interview with a powerful CEO recently in which he was asked to identify the most stressful aspect of his job. "I don’t get much stress," he replied, "I give it."

I thought the quote was pithy, but I was not particularly inspired or impressed. I contrast this sentiment with a scene I witnessed a few years ago from a different kind of leader. She was the president of a major consulting firm, overseeing dozens of offices and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

During my meeting with this impressive leader, I developed an annoying cough, so she walked me to the corporate kitchen to grab a bottle of water. At the kitchen, we encountered a harried woman in the process of loading multiple bottles of water onto a cart. There was a meeting of more than 20 people in a nearby conference room, and she was desperately trying to provide them food and drink.

"Excuse me," said the president of the firm, "do you mind if I take one of these water bottles?"

"No," yelled the harried woman, "I need these for a meeting and you cannot have one."

I was a bit shocked at the retort, but even more blown away by the president’s response. I assumed she’d be angry and was waiting for her to utter the dreaded six words you never want to hear: "Do you know who I am?"

Instead, the president smiled, calmed the woman down, assured her all was OK, and that we’d find a bottle of water. Which we did.

I assumed she’d be angry and was waiting for her to utter the dreaded six words you never want to hear: 'Do you know who I am?'

What I witnessed that afternoon was an act of graciousness, which I found deeply impressive. It reminded me of a similar moment that was exhibited from an unexpected source. I was working at Korn Ferry at the time, and we were considering acquiring a company that was owned by Michael Milken. I approached the meeting with slight trepidation, as Milken was a larger-than-life figure who gained notoriety for inventing the junk bond market in the 1980s.

I was attending the meeting with a colleague who oversaw mergers and acquisitions, and Milken greeted us both warmly. After introductions, he paused, looked us in the eyes, and said, "Have we met before?"

My colleague lit up and replied yes, in fact, they had met briefly at a conference a few years back. I also had been introduced and shaken Milken’s hand at some event, but I realized there was no way he would recall ever having met me or my colleague. Yet he was providing a gracious opening for us to connect. It was a classy move.

It was also ironic, as his initial fame came during a time when rapaciousness, rather graciousness, was being heralded. That was the era of corporate raiders Ivan Boesky and T. Boone Pickens, and of fierce leaders such as "Neutron Jack" Welch. There was not a lot of talk about grace or kindness then.

But thankfully, times have changed, at least in the workplace. In a recent study on civility in America, Weber Shandwick found while 93% of people surveyed believe America has a civility problem, 92% described their workplace as civil. Apparently, we can all get along at work, just not at the dinner table or in public spaces.

So, next time a stressed-out counter agent at the airport shouts at you, or a family relation gets in your face about a political issue, try to breathe and stay kind.

And don’t ever utter the dreaded six words. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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