Lasting Impressions

Time with my granddaughter is wonderful and exhausting at the same time. One of the great (and not so great) things about a five-year-old is they tend to express their feelings unfiltered. I find myself restating things in different words or a different tone once her response lets me know how what I said or did impacted her. She also remembers what I said we would do and then reminds me.

I’m mostly glad that adults don’t act like a five-year-old. However, adults have the same emotions and are impacted by what others say and do (or don’t do). We may not express them. We may not outwardly act on them. We may even try to ignore them. Yet they are there, and they color how we perceive others. We have just learned to act like adults.

“Act” is the operative word. One of the things we learn to do as we mature is to modify our outward actions to match societal norms rather than our internal feelings. When we feel angry with someone, we don’t act angry; we demonstrate patience. When we feel disappointed about something, we don’t throw a tantrum. We feel frustrated with a situation, we choose to persevere instead of quitting.

In recovery, we say, “We can’t feel our way into right actions, but we can act our way into right feelings.”

The saying is about our internal processes, but it turns out to be correct about external ones as well. When I choose to treat someone with respect, they feel respected. When I choose to give someone the benefit of thinking the best of them (and their actions), they feel cared about. When I choose to listen, even to things I am reacting to, they feel heard.

By being in a community we are making a promise. We are promising to take responsibility for the way people feel when they interact with us. Obviously, we can’t control how other people feel, but we ARE accepting responsibility for the impact we have on people. If I am a leader in a community, I accept significantly more responsibility to be aware of the impression I make through what I say and do (and what I don’t say and don’t do).

The reason I alter my behavior around my granddaughter is that I am an adult, and she is a child. In addition to her need for me to demonstrate better behavior so she can learn, there is a power imbalance between us. Sometimes, it may seem like a 5-year-old has unlimited power, but the reality is heavily weighted toward the adult. In the exact same way, leadership comes with a power imbalance—the power to alter the course of someone’s life.

As a leader, I do not have the freedom to respond the way I feel. I have a responsibility to act in ways that increase the likelihood the people I serve will feel respected, cared about, and seen. We do this by assuming the best, not the worst, about people and their behavior. We do this by listening to be influenced, not just to understand or respond. We do this by giving recognition generously in ways that are about the person’s character and contribution, not just their execution. It is difficult to lead a 5-year-old. It is also difficult to lead adults. People are messy. They misinterpret other people’s actions, respond and act in less than adult ways, and get their feelings hurt easily. A community where people take responsibility for the impression they make on others, served by leaders who are willing to “act their way” to the community having more right feelings is a healthy place to live and work, and it is The Bison Way.