We can develop the unlikeliest of friendships in our lives. These are people that intercede our journeys. We connect with them, not because of our similarities, but mostly our differences. A unique arrangement that can develop the strongest of bonds.
My friend Shirley passed away almost a year ago today at the age of eight-seven. The memorial service was delayed due to COVD-19. This past Saturday, her family honored her and her husband Red who proceeded her in death by one month. I had the opportunity to speak at the memorial service.
Fulfilling A Commitment
Shirley always told me that she wanted me to speak at her funeral. I am a man of my word and she was a person that held you to your word. I was grateful for the opportunity the family gave me to fulfill that commitment. There was no chance I wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity to honor my friend, and I sure wasn’t going to have her waiting for me at the pearly gates asking why I didn’t come through on my word! Believe me, she would have been waiting!
Born in 1936, she was raised in the World War 2 era in Acworth, Georgia, a time of scarcity. She was an encyclopedia of local history, well written, and well-studied. Shirley was the only paper subscriber to Leadership and Main due to her sheer unwillingness to adopt the internet and technology in general. I’d have to deliver them to her doorstep. She would call after reading and compliment me on the content and ask if I wanted any feedback on my grammar (which I respectfully declined).
Shirley could be feisty, but reasonable when presented with an honest and well-equipped response. She was tough, yet caring. A fiercely loyal friend, even amid a difference of opinion.
She was forty-six years ahead of me in life. While we were from two completely different generations, could disagree on a variety of topics, I learned a lot from her. In this week’s post, I want to share with you five leadership lessons that I learned from this special individual that made me a better human being:
Differences Can Build Common Ground
Shirley was not always a fan of our city’s effort to attract visitors through large events and festivals. We didn’t receive fan mail from her on our efforts to grow residentially and commercially either. Shirley liked the community the way it was when she grew up in Acworth. She never met a tax she liked, much less a tax increase.
I work in municipal government, where attracting visitors and growth is typically a best practice for your community! As the government, you levy taxes. Not always the most popular position to be in with someone who doesn’t like them! Add the generational differences, our worlds could not be further apart.
Here is what we did share, a common love for the community that we both grew up in. Our differences in visions all led to the same destination, what was best for our community and the people in it. That common interest grew a mutual respect for our differences that lead to an appreciation for our common ground.
Dialogue Over Debate
Whenever we disagreed, we had dialogue, not debate. Pay attention closely to this because there is a big difference. She passionately presented her opinion, I would listen. I less passionately presented my opinion out of respect for my elder, she would listen. It’s actually a pretty simple process when you think about it. The ability to participate in quality dialogue is a lost art these days. Our lack of ability to do so is driven by the model of dysfunctional debates that take place in the public arena.
Debates are designed to tear apart the opposing view’s opinion and use the carnage to impose your ideals on them or others. Both sides seek to win at all costs. Dialogue is the process in which two people genuinely seek to understand the other’s position. Both sides desire to walk away more educated and informed than they were prior to. Debate is destructive, dialogue is constructive.
Don’t Take Everything So Serious
She would regularly remind me of a certain section of road that was substandard in her opinion. She stubbornly would drive clear around that area and go to a completely different shopping center just to avoid it. Then she would call and remind me of the inconvenience.
Instead of accepting her ridicule, sometimes I would respond with a touch of humor. My humor typically comes in the form of dry sarcasm. So…my response was simple. “Well…Shirley, we are just trying to get you what you want. We are going to continue to let the road deteriorate until it turns to dirt. That way it’s just like when you grew up in the community. We are going to take Acworth back to where you want it to go!” She had a great laugh, I got to hear it that day, thankfully!
Even when she was passionate, she never took my humorous response (well, at least to me) as an insult. She appreciated the banter, and we had fun with it. She taught me that even the most serious things, don’t have to be taken so seriously. We can communicate tough issues, concerns, and disagreements and still be able to laugh at the end. That is okay.
Remembering the Why
Leaders who forget their why lose their way. It leads to misguided decisions through disconnection. She taught me that even differing opinions count. As a public servant, you have a responsibility to serve everyone no matter their age, social status, backgrounds, belief systems, or regardless of their opinions. It’s an awesome responsibility and people like Shirley reminded me of that obligation. I am glad she did because it has had a lasting impact on me.
A person who once scared me as a twenty-year-old turned into someone I looked forward to seeing their name come up on my phone. Regardless of the purpose of the call, she always ended it with, “How are Shannon and the kids doing?” The call could have been to give me a hard time about a pothole, asking about a rumor she had heard in the community, or to update me on hers or Red’s health. She would ask about my family in such a sincere manner as if that was what she wanted to get to the whole time. One simple question completely redirected the conversation.
In leadership and life, we can find the unlikeliest of friendships through our differences. It starts with a willingness to listen and ends with a deep appreciation for another person’s unique Vantage Point.
Sometimes we can complicate leadership. There are hundreds of thousands of books, podcasts, and videos that will provide various strategies on how to lead. As a student of leadership, I have read, listened to, and watched a good amount of these.
If we get to the simplistic core of leadership, it is grounded in being a quality and civil human being. My writing style typically takes the storyline and applies it to leadership. Today, it was a simple lesson in one person’s impact on my life that made me a better human being. That skill set is transferable across all leadership platforms.