Key Point: I’ve come to learn that there is usually more to the story. I also know that as a leader, you have to be decisive in the moment and make a call on principle, even if you don’t have all the facts. That is the real life practice of leadership, not what the text book or HBR article suggests, but what one does when called upon to act as events unfold, coming at you full speed. Frankly, the big strategic decisions are normally easier for smart leaders, even if more momentous. We usually have the time and resources to apply lots of critical thinking before we arrive at that decisive moment. However our unvarnished, “who we really are” leadership is a culmination of many daily “moments of truth,” where what we do, think and say shows us up big time.
There it was as I was ambling down to the hotel lobby, a sparkling white stretch limousine parked in the reception drive, waiting for its pampered passengers. My team had arranged for the transportation of our top 10 executive to the facility where we were participating in a regional leadership conference with local leaders and team members. We thought we were going to be picked up in a small “ordinary” bus. No one expected a limousine equipped with a classically attired chauffeur. But here he was, white gloved, red carpet out, smiling and ready to gallantly ferry us forward.
“Is that limo for us? Because if it is, we are NOT taking it!” I exclaimed.
“You’re kidding?” replied the person from my team who made the arrangement.
“No, I’m not kidding.” I fired back. “Please pay him for his services, give him a nice tip, and POLITELY tell him that we won’t be using his services today.”
And so the executive team car-pooled and used the local cab service to get to the leadership conference. (No Uber in this town).
The reason I made the decision I did, was because I did not want our executive to get there in a limousine at the same time our conference team members were arriving. Alberta is going through a rough time economically, and I felt it would be in bad taste and insensitive to show up that way. It smacks of status differential, elitism and underscores the stereotype of “out of touch” executives. How does one explain the symbolism? Even if no one could see us arriving, I would not have allowed this to happen because it is not who we are as a culture. We are more than a bank, and committed to make banking work for people. Showing up in a limo feels like stuffy bankers working for themselves and their big, fat egos.
Now for the rest of the story… After a few of us jumped in a cab, a couple of my colleagues noticed the embarrassment of the limo driver, and were gracious enough to go over and listen to him. They found out that he has been a customer with us for 17 years. We helped him start the limo business out of personal bankruptcy! Oh, Geez! He was so proud of the successful company he built and was delighted to drive us. That morning, he even got up early to do last minute repairs on the stretch limo; his pride and joy. He was very disappointed and confused with my decision. He refused payment. We insisted and he finally agreed to donate it to one of our charities in his name. He is a classy guy.
Later that morning, I shared the whole story with all the 100 plus conference delegates. I explained why I made the decision and also asked if they would mind the execs taking a ride back to the hotel with him. And of course they didn’t, applauded that gesture and fully appreciated the context. We also encouraged team members to thank him for his business as they left the convention.
- When you make a “values based” decision, it is usually the right one. Even knowing what I know now, I would have made the same decision. A “limo” and all it represents is not who we are. And I think my team learned something about being clear and understanding that the “medium is the message.”
- The other part of the lesson is to always get the whole story. If my teammates had not stopped to listen to the driver/owner, I might have not learned that he was a customer and would have missed an opportunity to recover and repair our relationship.
- Making an “in the moment” decision involves confidently and rapidly applying all your senses against a value based framework or filter to help you determine the “right thing” to do. At the same time, one had to be humble enough to complete the picture, and if necessary, amend or supplement. That also requires leadership; to appreciate that most things are not black and white. Being “right” often involves tradeoffs and just plain judgment as well as the courage to make a call. As one becomes a little more experienced and wiser, we appreciate that there is usually more to a situation that makes black and white more like the real shades of gray.
Gray Limo in The Triangle,
One Millennial View: In my opinion, it’s too bad that an executive team showing up in a limo to a convention would be frowned upon. It’s the executive team. Limos are nice, but they’re not helicopters made of gold. That said, I completely understand the decision, and due to today’s social climate, it was the best choice to make a more modest entrance. But as a low-level Millennial, I think it’s on us to have the responsibility to have the abundance to appreciate that if someone takes a limo, it’s not because they’re trying to shove excess in our faces. I’d say, “good for you guys! Can’t wait to ride in a limo one day myself!” If your first reaction is “they’re doing this to show me up,” I think that’s a negative and scarce state of mind, but that’s just my perspective.
Edited and published by Garrett Rubis