The conference room was a mess. Participants were starting to arrive and the tables were scattered haphazardly about the room. Our materials for the two-day session were still in boxes in the corner of the room. My partner Rob had been there since 7:15 and he had not touched a thing. I was surprised. I started to sweat. This was a really important client.

Okay, it was, in fact, 7:40 when I arrived even though we had agreed to meet at 7:15. But I had a 45-minute drive and he didn’t.  And, yes, when I arrived, he was engaged with the tech support person setting up the projector for our power-point slides. But I had been late before—I’m “reliably” just a few minutes late. And Rob is “reliably” on time, and takes care of details.  That was our pattern: I would be late, arriving with apologies and justifications; explanations I had rehearsed and honed during the time I should have already been there.  Meanwhile, he would cover for me and have everything set up. Why was this time different?

My answer arrived at the end of the day, after co-facilitating an especially challenging leadership program with a group of demanding executives. They had experienced me as a provocative, engaging, and insightful facilitator, the way I want to be perceived all the time. But as they arrived that morning their first impression of me was formed as I frantically slid tables and chairs into place and tossed notebooks, pads and pens around the room. Their experience: a disorganized, somewhat embarrassed professional.

Rob had decided to help me change.

It was an act of compassion, really, and one Rob took at great risk to our collective reputation with this client.  But it was time. I am human and I operate as one, taking refuge in my habitual behaviors as if they are defensible and unchangeable simply because I’ve always been that way. Rob realized that by covering for my tardiness he was actually colluding with my habit of being late. So that day he let me experience the consequences of my behavior. I was confronted with the outcomes resulting from my sloppy relationship with time. He could have gotten angry and critical, but he did not. That would have just been nagging. Instead, he did what every good leader knows to do. He let me experience the impact of the behaviors that needed to change. And that experience created in me the motivation to change.

Leaders cannot change people.

But leaders can create the conditions to help people inspire their own change. Good leaders know they are working with other humans beings.  We all have unique gifts that are usually offset by corresponding weaknesses.  And, we are not programmable robots. When our behaviors need to change, the reprograming needs to come from within, not because someone else wants us to. The best leaders — and partners — help a person create that motivation.

Did I change? You bet. I have not been late since.   At least not with Rob. When meeting with others?  Well, I still had some work to do there. But that’s another story.

What “defining moments” have you had as a result of others taking a stand for you?

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