‘Thank you for the unexpected lessons’

Leadership lessons often come to us when we least expect them.

I had the experience of observing a leader working with a small group that she has mentored over the course of a year. In an open circle Ann invited each of them to “check in” with an experience that was challenging or gratifying. It could be work-related or personal. The intention was to appreciate how each person is growing in his or her self-awareness, which directly impacts workplace dynamics and personal relationships.

Lesson I: The difference between expectations and hope

During the “check in,” one young man described arriving home from work on the first day of school. He had great expectations that his two children, ages 14 and eight would be filled with excitement and energy; reunited with old friends; beginning new classes, etc. He had a Norman Rockwell image of dinner with stories and laughter from the day. Instead, when he walked into his home, his 8-year-old daughter was crying, having been bullied in school; and his 14-year-old son was not speaking. John’s wife told him that their son had returned home after the first period, angry and unwilling to talk.

After dinner, John approached his son and said, “I know you’ve had a tough day. Is there anything that you are willing to share?” John admitted to the group his embarrassment that his son had not made it through the first day of school. However, he managed his emotions well, and rather than talk, John listened to his son. When asked by Ann what that experience was like for him, he replied that he felt like a father for the first time in a long time. He felt connected to his son, seeing the world from his viewing point.

Ann used John’s experience to offer a distinction between expectations and hope. She suggested to John that expecting his children to have a good first day in school had strings attached. When expectations are not realized we experience disappointment, judgment, frustration.

Expectations are driven by logic. There are areas of our lives where expectations are realistic, important and fair. For example, an employee can expect to be paid a just wage for his or her work; and a manager can expect that employees will complete their work to standards and on time.

Hope invites an invitation into possibility. Hope is defined as the “emotional state which promotes the belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one’s life.” There are no strings attached. There are no judgments. There are fewer disappointments and more pleasant surprises. We can hope that our kids have a good day in school. We can hope that the work that we do is recognized.

“Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all.”

— Emily Dickinson

Lesson II: Compliments vs. affirmation

As Ann invited others to “check in,” Joy offered a scenario about a client that was both gratifying and embarrassing for her. She began by stating that she is embarrassed by compliments. It was difficult for her to share the positive feedback that she received from her client. Tearfully, she reviewed the experience of saying goodbye to an elderly client whom she had worked with for a number of months. The setting was a health care facility where the client was recovering after a serious injury. Joy visited with her regularly. As they said goodbye, Joy’s client told her that while she would never want to fracture her hip again, she was grateful for her time with Joy. Her parting words were: “Through you, I have seen the face of God.”

Joy framed these words as a compliment. Ann suggested an alternative. She described the difference between a compliment and an affirmation. A compliment is defined as an expression of esteem or admiration usually connected to something that someone has done. Ann stated that the flip side of a compliment can be criticism. An affirmation, on the other hand, is defined as a statement of truth. It just is. It is more about being than doing. What Joy’s client offered was an affirmation of who she is. What Ann asked of Joy was to promise to receive the affirmations that she surely would be given. It was a profound moment for teacher and student and for those of us who witnessed the exchange.

“You must begin to think of yourself as becoming the person you want to be.”

— David Viscott

Lesson III: Be who you are for as long as you can

Ann is a leader, teacher, wife, mother, daughter, sister, minister and friend. She is living into her last days. She is in home hospice, living with intention and integrity. In August, she danced at her daughter’s wedding. She is living her life fully in the present. She is living each moment; honoring each moment; breathing life and letting go. While she has had days of sadness, she has not indulged in self pity. She welcomes the morning; she goes without resistance into the night. She continues to give away her love and wisdom; her joy and great care, knowing full well that each day may be her last.

“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

— Norman Cousins

Leadership lessons often come when we least expect them. To my friend, I am grateful for what you have taught us about expectation and hope; compliments and affirmation, and the choice to live with grace and humility; with intention and honor inside the embrace of love.

Thank you for the unexpected lessons.


Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in emotional intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

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