Last May, Steve was sitting in his office and writing the agenda for a meeting. He was trying to design a leadership activity for a group that needed to be rejuvenated at a critical time of the year. Concentrating intensely, he did not notice the colleague hiding in his door frame until he heard someone else nearby gently chide the colleague: “Stop pacing in Steve’s doorway and just walk in.”
On his way in, falling into the chair in front of Steve’s desk, and nearly sitting right on his own bike-messenger style bag, the teacher started apologizing profusely for missing a meeting with Steve. Steve was confused. He glanced at his calendar. Looked back at his colleague. Glanced again at his calendar.
Then he smiled. “Do you mean next week’s meeting? If you have figured out how to miss next week’s meeting in advance of next week’s meeting, then I’d love to borrow your time machine.”
Steve’s colleague was first confused and then relieved.
“Thank goodness. Sorry about this,” he said. “Sorry to have wasted your time.”
Steve thought back through his interactions with this colleague and realized that this wasn’t the first time that he had confused his appointments with him or with others. And, since he had him in his office, he decided to dig in a little bit. Perhaps he could help him.
After a few questions, Steve figured out that this young man’s calendar systems were as good as they needed to be. If anything, they were overly thorough, bordering on obsessive, since they involved an electronic calendar, a smartphone, and an even smarter watch. He was also motivated to do well and to be present at meetings to which he was called. So Steve decided to end the conversation by turning the tables on himself, more by habit than because he thought that it would yield an insight. Steve asked, “How can I help? When I call a meeting with you, is there something that I can do differently to ensure that we both get what we need?"
Steve was surprised at how quickly his young colleague was able to answer him. “You can not email me too early.”
“In the day?” Steve asked.
“No, I am up early. It is not that. It is just that...when you email me four weeks in advance of a meeting, I am less likely to take care of that meeting appointment . . . because it feels less urgent or something. But when you email me a few days in advance, I will never miss the appointment because that is just how I tend to set things up for myself -- around momentum and context. Because, really, almost anything can be moved or shifted, until it cannot be, until it is happening, right?”
And with that, he looked at his watch, which had lit up with a reminder that something was happening and was most likely also tapping him on the wrist with some kind of haptic communication feature, then said, “I am going to be late for class, so I have to go. Thanks for chatting.”
When he left, Steve tried to get back to the agenda he had been writing, to the design of a leadership exercise, but he kept getting distracted by the non-meeting, non-apology that had just happened in his office.
Was this, perhaps, a moment for Steve to think about his own leadership before he thought about the leadership of others? Or was his leadership solid and on course? Put more granularly, should the teacher — in this case, the one lower on the hierarchical chain of command — adjust to Steve, or should Steve — the senior leader with almost two decades of experience — adjust to the teacher? And, plumbing for empathy, what did Steve prefer when he was not actually the one in charge? What did he prefer when he was a producer and not a leader? Steve felt the stirrings of a confused excitement. Confusion because his head was spinning with possibilities and questions; excitement because he knew that this feeling was usually the beginning of insight, of learning.