More often than not, when we think of leaders we think of “wow” factor, helping to guide others towards the achievement of a grand idea or vision. Occasionally, the impact of leaders can be far more subtle, and the effects of their leadership may not be evident for months, or even years. It is only in hindsight that we realize how even the smallest doses of mentorship and leadership at the right place and the right time can have powerful, lasting effects.
I always think of November as a month of traditions. The Thanksgiving holiday is the cornerstone of those traditions. But for me, it also always includes a college football match-up between Lafayette College and my alma mater, Lehigh University. It is the nation’s most played rivalry in college football, and this past weekend marked a significant milestone as the two schools met for the 150th time. It was so historic that the two schools traveled from their respective cozy confines in eastern Pennsylvania to play the game in New York at Yankee Stadium. I was fortunate enough to attend along with three college friends who had not gotten together in a number of years, and enjoyed quite a bit of reminiscing. It actually made me reflect upon how I ended up at Lehigh in the first place, which brings us to the heart of our story.
In high school, while I was involved in a few extra-curricular activities, my main focus was on my studies and classwork. Math and science classes seemed to be a more natural fit for me than other classes, and I found myself gravitating towards an engineering major when it came time to look at colleges. By the time junior year rolled around, I was having regular conversations with my guidance counselor, Mr. Gilmore, about options and colleges that may be of interest. In hindsight, not only was Mr. Gilmore getting to know me better as a student, but also as a person. The interactions were always brief, perhaps no more than 5 minutes at a time, but they were always engaging, and very personable.
By the fall of my senior year, I had visited a number of schools, narrowed down the list, and started the application process. (Yes, this was before the days of applying on line to dozens of schools). Mr. Gilmore and I continued to have regular conversations, and told me to be patient as we went into the spring.
In identifying top engineering schools, I knew that getting into MIT was not likely, that Rensselaer Polytech (RPI) was a stretch, and that I had a decent chance of getting into Lehigh. I decided to apply to RPI, Lehigh, and a few others. By that March, I had been accepted by Lehigh, but wait listed at RPI. I struggled between whether I should wait and see with RPI or not, and decided to bounce it off of Mr. Gilmore.
After explaining the latest update with Mr. Gilmore, he responded with the following:
“So, do you want to just study and be a good student, or do you want to experience college life outside of the classroom”
I knew I didn’t just want to study, and study, and study some more. “I want to experience college life outside the classroom” I replied.
“Go to Lehigh” Mr. Gilmore said.
That was the end of the conversation. He didn’t have to say anything else, and within the week, I let Lehigh know that I would be there that August.
What I didn’t know then, but realized years later, was that Mr. Gilmore saw raw qualities in me that had yet to mature, and knew that the opportunities for those qualities to shine would be much greater at Lehigh than anywhere else I had applied, including RPI. Over the next four years at Lehigh, while I learned a great deal in the classroom, I learned much more outside the classroom, including leadership opportunities of my own, as well as regular collaboration with students, faculty and staff that truly helped me grow and mature.
All along, throughout the entire college application process, Mr. Gilmore got to know me better and better, knew exactly where I needed to go, and all he had to do was give me a gentle nudge in the right direction. When I think about all of the things that have unfolded in my life as a result of going to Lehigh, and the domino effect of subsequent opportunities since then, that conversation with Mr. Gilmore may have been the most pivotal 30 seconds of my life.
Throughout my career I have reflected back on those fateful 30 seconds with Mr. Gilmore. Every once in a while I find myself in a similar situation, and try to see if I could replicate the soft touch approach with others, whether it be career guidance to a direct report or colleague or coaching young children in youth sports. Over time I’ve become convinced that a series of small doses of leadership can result in tremendous long term benefits.
So, in this month of traditions, after having enjoyed a college milestone with fellow alumni and enjoying Thanksgiving with family and friends, it’s also a moment for a special thank you to Mr. Gilmore. Your subtle style of leadership had an impact greater than you can ever imagine, and for that I am forever grateful.