One thing I enjoy tremendously is seeing values-based leadership in action. Over the years I have had the opportunity to witness many such instances, and I frequently share these “Real World” examples with my students and executives who attend my leadership talks and seminars. Often, I hear some great examples from my friends, colleagues, and students…and now I have an amazing example to share!!!

I received the below note, a true story, from one of my former Kellogg students. As you read the note, I would like to ask you to focus on a few questions:

  • Am I self reflective enough to even consider doing what this person did? (What are my values and what kind of impact do I want to make in the world during my life?)
  • Do I let the actions of others determine how I will react, or do I have a balanced perspective that enables me to determine how I will respond? (Am I proactive or reactive?)
  • Do I have the TRUE self confidence of this individual, enabling myself to be an example to others of what it really means to be a values-based leader? (Or am I overly concerned of what others would think of my actions?)
  • What does this story teach me about the power of GENUINE humility? (Isn’t it amazing the impact we can have on others when it is not “all about me”?)

I have read this story several times today…and I am more impacted by the words and message each time I read it!!!! To my student, thanks so much for sharing!!!

Defusing Anger with Kindness

The man stepped into the line for coffee right in front of me.

“Excuse me,” I said, “the line is behind me.” He didn’t turn or respond. I noticed that he was wearing headphones; he must not have heard me. I tapped him on his arm and repeated, “Excuse me, the line is behind me.”

“I know there is a line!” he turned and snapped angrily.

“Just making sure you knew,” I replied calmly.

“I know what a line is, you F**K!” he yelled, loudly enough for everyone in the cafe to hear.

“No need to cuss,” I chided gently.

Seething, the man got in the line two spots behind me, and we waited for our turn to order. After several minutes of waiting, my turn came. I ordered my usual latte. The baristas took the orders for the woman behind me, as well as the man who I had the confrontation with. By the time my turn to pay came, I had made up my mind:

“Yes, one latte,” I declared. “And I’m going to cover my friend there as well,” I added, pointing at the man. I paid for both of us. As I turned to walk away, I glanced at the man, and he said to me rather tersely,

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know,” I said, “but it seemed like you were having a bad day.”

We shook hands, and I walked over to the side to wait for my latte. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the guy who had been in line right in front of me. “That was classy, man,” he said. I nodded my thanks.


I share this story, professor, not to make myself appear noble or to win accolades. Rather, my intent is to use it as a portal to get into the mindset, the internal deliberations, that led to this outcome, and share my takeaways regarding the importance of cultivating certain attributes.

As I see it, this was essentially all about genuine humility and true self-confidence. I ask myself: Why did I not fly off the handle when the man swore at me? Alternatively, why did I not shrink into myself, embarrassed at being berated in public in such a manner? My answer is genuine humility and true self-confidence. A lack of humility can make people’s sense of pride overly sensitive to injury.  A large ego gets wounded easily: How DARE he swear at me?! This can lead quickly to anger and potentially an uncontrolled reaction. At the same time, I have to be truly self-confident to realize that the angry statements of a complete stranger cannot hurt or embarrass me. I remain calm and collected, recognizing that the issue is not with me, but with the gentleman who has decided to yell out abusive language in a public setting at a complete stranger. Therefore, I am able to remain in control of myself, and consequently, I am able to control the situation.

Staying calm and recognizing that I am in control then allows me to think beyond myself. Why did this man have an outburst? Is he having a bad morning? Is he simply a jerk? Or is he racist, his anger sparked by the sight of my brown skin? (This may seem like a ludicrous possibility to those who haven’t experienced racism, but I have.) Probably a multitude of other possibilities, but I am able to quickly get to an answer for myself: Regardless of the man’s motive, I have an opportunity to defuse his hate/anger with an act of generosity, of kindness, by buying his coffee for him. Not only is it a “nice thing to do”, it’s also extremely empowering. It leaves me feeling strong and grounded in the “courage of my convictions.”

It is my core belief that it’s the small actions that build one’s character. Pay attention to yourself — how you think, how you behave — when dealing with the seemingly small and insignificant events of daily life, and push yourself to do the “right thing” and be a change agent, no matter how uncomfortable it is.  Inevitably, you will find yourself muscled up and more prepared to do the heavy lifting when the big events occur. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Have a great weekend, all!