Lead Like They’ll Remember – Because They Will

Not too long ago I attended a dinner party hosted by a former college classmate whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We’ve maintained periodic contact over the years and when a confluence of events brought me to his city, he and his wife were kind enough to extend a dinner invitation.

Among the last to arrive (I’ve never been good with directions), I began making the rounds, introducing myself to those already seated, when I came face-to-face with a former college professor/dean of mine. We hadn’t seen each other in over 40 years. Though grayer than I remembered him, he was immediately recognizable and his always-engaging style brought back a flood of wonderful memories. Still quite sharp, with no signs of any memory loss, he nevertheless had no idea who I was. I restated my name, mentioned a few stories sure to jog his memory, and reminded him that, as a respected cleric in addition to his academic pedigree, he had even officiated at my wedding. (At that point, I brought my wife over as evidence.) An awkward shoulder shrug followed, but absolutely no sign of recognition. This man, whom at one point was probably the most important non-parental influence in my life, simply had no idea who I was.

It’s unusual, almost unheard of, today to describe a relationship between a university professor and an adoring undergraduate in terms devoid of anything scandalous. But in this case, the only scandal was that he had forgotten who I was. The simple truth is that in those early years of my academic career he was hugely important to me. His ideas were compelling and his pedagogy spellbinding. Most significant, at least to this wide-eyed would-be scholar, was his accessibility. Busy as he was teaching, researching, and administering, he remained readily available and made each of his students feel remarkably important, even when he challenged us to push further and think more deeply. Pleasing him mattered to me above almost anything else; earning his respect meant the world.

Years later, I still think of myself as “one of his students.” I endeavor still to actualize many of the things he taught me and even to this day, I can sense his influence on my own teaching style. Yet, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the guy had zero memory of me. Not my brilliant insights, not my humor, not my diligence. NOTHING.

I admit I was a little depressed by the whole experience for a short while and then I began to reflect a bit. I too am an educator. And, I am the child, sibling, uncle, and parent of educators as well. How might I compare to my beloved college professor if faced with similar circumstances? The truth is, I wouldn’t want to speculate. But the entire experience taught me some valuable lessons. So I guess in a way, the man with outsized influence on me all those years ago was still teaching me something decades later.

For starters, those of us who lead, whether as educators or bosses, as parents or communal exemplars, must never lose sight of the influence we have at present and in potentia. A simple, even seemingly meaningless act on the part of the leader, often resonates for a very long time to come.

Leadership is a reciprocal relationship. And, it is often the “gift that keeps on giving,” even when we never think twice about it again. On any given day, our actions as a leader make an impression, the impact of which we simply cannot evaluate.

I have forgiven my professor for forgetting me. In doing so he reminded me of the need to be humble, on the one hand, while also underscoring the enduring impact of our actions even when they have long since vanished from our consciousness.

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