Leading From the Bottom Up

What can YOU learn from a new dispatcher and a grocery bag boy about leadership? Plenty.

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.'"
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