Tips From The Top

“It Worked For Me” by Colin Powell

I’m reading a great book by one of my idols, Colin Powell (are you allowed to call a four-star general and former Secretary of State an “idol”?)

He talks about “slipping away” from his posh office and bodyguards, and going down to the parking garage when he was Secretary of State. The workers were all mainly immigrants, minorities, and of course all working for minimum wage. Apparently they thought he was lost (they’d never seen someone of his rank just walking around down there before!) and tried to “help him get back home.” He said instead that he wanted to talk to them.

They chatted, and then ultimately he got around to a question that had been puzzling him. The garage was too small for all the folks who parked there, so the attendants had to stack the cars three deep. He asked, “When cars come in each morning, how to do you decide which car is the first to get out, which is the second, and which is the last?”

Apparently the attendants knowingly smiled, saying: “Mr. Secretary, it goes like this: When you drive in, if you lower the window, look out, smile, or know our name, you’re number one to get out. But if you look straight  ahead, don’t show you see us or that we are doing something for you, well, you are likely to be one of the last ones to get out.”

Powell shared this with his senior leaders at his next staff meeting. He said:

“You can never err by treating everyone with respect, thoughtfulness, and a kind word.”

As he wrote, “It ain’t brain surgery.” Every person has value and wants that value to be recognized. Everyone needs appreciation and reinforcement.

As he also wrote, however, “being kind doesn’t mean being soft.”

His example? “When young soldiers go to basic training, they meet their drill sergeant, who seems to be their worst nightmare. They are terrified. But all that changes. The sergeant is with them every step of the way, teaching, cajoling, enforcing, bringing out the strength and confidence they didn’t know they had. When they graduate, they leave with an emotional bond they will never forget. Ask any veteran the name of his drill sergeant and he will know it. (My ROTC camp drill sergeant almost 55 years ago was Staff Sgt. Artis Westberry.)

As outlined by General Powell, if you develop a reputation for kindness, things will go down easier for you. If you have to make an unpleasant decision, people will realize that it must be necessary and not arbitrary; it was made  really taking everything (and everyone) into account.

I remember a very scary time, when my husband had a terrible car accident. We’d traded cars – he needed my then-car, a small Toyota pickup, to haul something-or-another. I was in his then-car, a Volvo, going down the 4-lane highway in a slight misty rain, and in my rear-view mirror, I saw a car do a 360 and then a 180 on the slick pavement, hitting all sides of the cement barricade that was between our side and the oncoming traffic. I remember thinking “Oh my word, that was awful” as I could see the smoke coming up from the car far behind me.

Then my telephone rang. It was my husband, he said “I’ve just had an accident, and I think I’m going unconscious.” Yes, it was him – in moving from the Volvo to the Toyota, he’d forgotten that my car didn’t have anti-lock brakes and on the slick pavement and in the traffic he’d locked up the brakes and spun the car. (Unbelievably, he didn’t hit anyone – only the cement barricade, over and over on all sides of the truck.)

I of course went into “full Marine mode,” pulling over, calling the Highway Patrol, circling back, the whole bit. In a crisis, you definitely want me. I get very cold, swift, and decisive. (Then again I climbed on a table – yes really – and shrieked like a little girl when I was surprised by a nest of mice in our gift wrap box, so you never know.)

Anyway – that’s not the important part of this story. The important part is when we got to the hospital, they said it was going to be hours before they could see him – MRI, CAT scan, all that jazz. The doctor made sure that he was “monitored” (by me) that he wouldn’t lapse into unconsciousness, but otherwise he had to “wait in line.”

Then – I heard my Dad’s voice. I couldn’t believe it – poked my head out, and there was my Dad, in golf clothes, talking to some of the Emergency Room nurses. He was, of course, as surprised to see me as I was him – turns out one of his patients had been brought to the Emergency Room in an ambulance, and when he’d gotten a call about it he quit his golf came and came over to be sure she was okay. He knew all the nurses by name, and sort of teased them, and introduced me around as his daughter who “was a lawyer, but don’t hold that against her.”

My husband and I do not share a last name. After they uncovered that he was “Doctor Shepard’s daughter’s husband” – though of course neither of us said anything about having to wait to my Dad – “suddenly” the lines opened up. We were through all the tests before the hour was up (and my husband was banged up, but fine, if you were wondering).

A few of the nurses came to talk to me, when my husband was having his tests done. They said that my Dad always had a kind word for them, always tried to remember their names, and even remembered small things about them, such as whether they had kids or not or where they had been before our hospital. They said that when it had “spread around” that “Dr. Shepard’s daughter’s husband” was in, everyone, from the orderlies to the folks running the machines agreed 100% that “waiting would be unnecessary” for my husband. When I mentioned this to my Dad, he (characteristically) said “Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t to do with me – you must be mistaken – I bet that something just opened up.”

We all know that’s just not how it works – and so what are you going to do, today, to change the day for someone? Smile into the eyes of the barrista who gives you your coffee? Thank them by name? (They all wear name tags, you know, or did you not notice?) I have a whole story – the “smiling into their eyes” Mall story – in my first book Fempowerment: A Guide To Unleashing Your Inner Bond Girl. I even have an exercise in the Companion Playbook! Yes, it’s that important.

Remember: To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world. And you don’t know WHEN, WHERE, or HOW that will happen – but if you are kind, it will happen when you don’t even know it.