Leading From the Bottom Up

Facing a room full of public safety telecommunications people at a recent conference in Colorado, I began a leadership training session with the question, "How many of you are leaders?" Some hands went up immediately, others only after pausing and looking around. Finally, every person had their hand up but one - a young woman. When our eyes met, she looked down at her folded hands in front of her. I walked over.

"What's your name?"

"Dawn," she softly replied. (Her real name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

Her supervisor, sitting next to her, leaned over and whispered, "You're a leader, Dawn."

The young woman hesitantly raised her hand.

"Dawn, you're boss is right. You are a leader. Martin Luther King said, 'Anyone can be a leader because anyone can serve.' Can you serve, Dawn?" I asked.


"Do you want to serve others?"


"Then you're a leader."

She smiled shyly, raised her hand higher and her boss beamed.

I continued the full-day training and had the privilege to work with a thoughtful, humorous, intelligent, and hard working group of dispatchers from whom I learned a great deal. At the end of the day, I told them the story behind a small, glass starfish I'd given each of them that morning.

A man was walking down a beach one day when in the distance he saw a young woman who appeared to be engaged in a dance. She would reach down, touch her hand to the sand, stand up and cast her arm out towards the sea. She kept repeating the motions. As he approached, he saw that the beach was littered with thousands of starfish that had been stranded by the outgoing tide and would die before the tide returned. The young woman was picking up starfish and tossing them back into the water.

The man said, "What are you doing? There are thousands of stranded starfish. There's only one of you. What possible difference can you hope to make?"

The woman didn't stop. Instead, she picked up another starfish, returned it to the sea, and said, "It makes a difference to this one."

I concluded with a tribute to the difference the dispatchers make in the lives of officers for whom they are a lifeline and in the lives of their communities for whom they provide a calm, strong, guiding light through adversity.

A week or so after that training, I received an email from one of the attendees. She shared with me a true story told by Barbara Glanz about a grocery bag boy named Johnny. The dispatcher said she thought the story exemplified my message. Ms. Glanz is a consultant, author and speaker. She was asked by a large supermarket to lead a customer service program. During her training, she said,

"Every one of you can make a difference... How? Think about something you can do for your customer to make them feel special."

About a month later Ms. Glanz got a call from a 19-year-old bagger named Johnny who unabashedly told her he was a Down Syndrome individual and added, "I liked what you talked about but at first I didn't think I could do anything special for our customers... I'm just a bagger. Then I had an idea. Every night after work, I'd come home and find a thought for the day. If I can't find a saying I like, I just think one up."

Johnny's Dad helped him print multiple copies of his "Thought for the Day" on a computer. Johnny cut them into separate slips, signed his name on the back of each and took them into work the next day. When he finished bagging someone's groceries, he put his "Thought for the Day" in their bag and said, "Thanks for shopping with us."

Another month later the store manager called Ms. Glanz, "You won't believe what happened." He told her that when he made his rounds that day, Johnny's checkout line was three times longer than any other. He quickly paged for more cashiers and tried to get people to move to new lanes. But the customers said,

"No, it's okay - we want to be in Johnny's lane - we want his 'Thought for the Day.'"

A few months later the manager called again and told her that Johnny had transformed the entire store. Now when the floral department has a broken flower or unused corsage, they find an elderly woman or a little girl and pin it on them.

"Everyone's creating memories. Our customers are talking about us... they're coming back and they're bringing their friends."

An illuminating sense of service spread throughout the store because one bag boy decided to make a difference.

Go to the web link at the end of this article and watch Johnny's story. It takes about 3 minutes and it's a worthy investment of your time. Better have a Kleenex on hand. If you're not moved, your friends need to chisel you from that block of ice you're living in. There are other ideas on Ms. Glanz's website for making a difference - one person at a time.

That day I spent with the Colorado dispatchers didn't end there for me. Shortly after I received Barbara Glanz's story of Johnny from one of them, I received an email from Pam Monsees, the Director of Telecommunications who had arranged for me to do the leadership training. She wrote,

"Our little Dawn was so moved and touched by your presentation that she is now wearing her starfish on a silver chain around her neck."

Pam explained that Dawn's life wasn't easy and that when she had applied to their agency, "Her self-confidence was at an all-time low." Pam concluded,

"I think Dawn sees herself as that starfish that 'it made a difference' too. [S]he has succeeded - and she 'shines' while she is here. Since her leadership class she seems to have a stronger confidence in herself - and has made the effort to help my new recruits with boosting their confidence levels! She is becoming a great coach."

That's when I realized that Johnny and Dawn had become my leaders; my coaches; as had the dispatcher and Pam, who'd sent me their stories; as had Barbara Glanz, who is spreading Johnny's story internationally.

It was from the least of these that I learned the most - from Dawn, a newly hired, shy, tentative dispatcher, and from Johnny the bag boy - both of whom had simply decided that, "Anyone can be a leader because anyone can serve," and that they could make a difference.

So, each of you - Chiefs, Deputy Chiefs, Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, Corporals, Officers, Sheriffs, Deputy Sheriffs, Detectives, Investigators, Recruits, Crime Lab personnel, Evidence Technicians, Records Clerks, Receptionists, Financial Officers, Custodians, Dispatchers, Supervisors, Volunteers, anyone on the team that enables your law enforcement organization to do its noble mission: Here's the challenge. Be a leader - from the top down, from the bottom up, from the inside out. Find at least one way you can make a difference to those you work with and for. Then do it... every day.

Find and give:

  • A "Thought for the Day"
  • a "Caught Caring" pin
  • a single silk or fresh flower
  • a "Thank You" card
  • a starfish charm
  • a "Giving Hand" medal
  • a “Helping Hand” medal
  • a glass heart
  • a "Believe" medal
  • an "Inspire" medal
  • a "Faith" medal
  • a "Hope" medal
  • a "Wisdom" medal
  • a "Hammered Heart" medal
  • a "Wings" medal
  • a toy compass - to help them find their way
  • a "Free laugh" punch card - get ten and get one free
  • a rubber wristband with an inspiring message

I've provided web links at the end of this article where you can get most of the above for pennies. The real cost and value is your time and your caring enough to do it.

Find something, some way, each and every day to make a difference to someone you work with or for, to make them feel special. At the end of each day ask the questions a leader asks no matter where they serve in the organization:

  • What did I contribute today?
  • What did I do to make a difference?
  • What did I do to make one person feel special?