International travel has a way of humbling us as it forces us to adapt to a different pace and circumstances outside our control. Not long ago, while attending the International Leadership Association Conference in Barcelona, Spain, international travel also taught me an important lesson about four critical concepts for every leader: Listening, Humility, Followership, Gratitude.
I was looking forward to visiting the Montserrat Monastery about an hour’s bus ride outside of Barcelona. We pulled into the parking lot, exited the bus, and boarded a cogwheel train that took us about half way up the mountain to the monastery. When we arrived, we disembarked the train and gathered outside the train station.
The tour guide oriented us to the monastery grounds and ended by saying, “And we meet back at the bus at 6:15 pm.” Now, I will admit that while he was talking in his thick, Spanish accent, I was taking in the sights that surrounded me. However, I thought I had heard EVERYTHING he had said as we proceeded on the rest of the tour.
The sights were fabulous- the architecture, the sculptures, the basilica, the natural surroundings. It was all breathtakingly beautiful. The tour ended and the guide released us to enjoy the area on our own. Before letting us go he reminded us once again, “Be back at the bus at 6:15 pm.” So, off we went.
It was not long before my colleague needed to give her full attention to something and she encouraged me to carry on exploring the sights. I reminded her to meet at the bus at 6:15, and off I went.
I was very excited to explore the trails and the buildings, but all the while, I heard my father’s parting words to me before I left for Barcelona, “Don’t go off by yourself. You are in a foreign country!” Okay, I know, but what could possibly happen? There is nowhere to go but down and I was surrounded by all kinds of people. I carried on.
I looked at my watch and saw it was about 5:50 pm- time to get to the bus. As I had been walking around, I heard people say, “You have to get back down the mountain the same way you came up.” Since I came up by the train, I headed to the train station to go back down. I should have known that something was wrong when a purchased ticket was required to get on the train for a “return trip.” I found this rather strange, but time was ticking away and I had to get to the bus by 6:15 pm. I purchased a ticket and got on the train.
I was about halfway down the mountain when I decided to text my friend to see where she was. We exchanged a few texts trying to determine where we each were and then I received the horrifying one from her saying, “Nancy, I am on the bus. Where are you?”
Panic immediately set in and I frantically texted her back, “I am heading down the mountain to the parking lot. How are you on the bus already?” This was not making sense to me.
The texts went silent for what seemed like an hour. Meanwhile, the train I was on came to the empty parking lot where we had boarded. I decided I must not be at the right parking lot so I stayed on the train for the next stop. There, I got off only to see nothing but mountainsides and endless tracks. I quickly found someone who worked there and was told to go back to the previous stop.
During the ride, my friend wrote to say I would have to take the train back to Barcelona and then take the subway to the hotel. That was the last I heard from my colleague.
I was suddenly alone, in a foreign country where I do not know the language, and no one was around to help. Finally, another train pulled into the station and I asked the conductor for help. He informed me that the train going to the station would not be at the platform for another hour. I had no choice but to sit on the desolate platform and wait, a humbling situation.
About halfway through my wait for my train, another train came screeching in bringing a load of returning tourists. Three college girls were laughing and reliving their day at the monastery. Through their laughter, I overheard one of them mention Barcelona. I approached them to see if I could follow them to Barcelona. Much to my relief, they agreed to lead me back. These three Finnish angels led me back to Barcelona and set me on my way to my hotel.
Back in Barcelona, I found myself on a dark and deserted street, with no idea where my hotel was. Coming down the empty street was a mom and her three young children. I decided to ask them for directions. Her English was no better than my Spanish but she managed to point me in the right direction.
I responded to her with great relief, “Muchas gracias!”
As I walked away, I heard her two young boys gleefully exclaim repeatedly, “Muchas gracias Muchas gracias! Muchas gracias!”
What leadership lessons did I learn by getting left behind on that mountain?
Listening. It is clear in my story that somewhere, somehow, I did not do a good job of listening. First, I failed to listen to the wisdom of my father’s voice. How many times do mentors in our lives share cautionary wisdom with us and we fail, as leaders, to listen? Second, when the tour guide gave directions, I was distracted and did not hear the full instructions. One of the most important things we do as leaders is to listen; yet, we can fail to listen to those who might know something we do not. We are also pulled in so many directions that we listen with only half an ear and miss some important details.
- How am I eliminating the distractions in my life so I can listen more deeply to those around me?
- What behaviors must I stop or start in order to listen more intentionally?
- Who are the mentors in my life that I might need to listen to more closely?
Humility: Sitting on that empty platform smacked me with humility! Humility keeps our ego in check and keeps us connected to others. It reminds us that we do not have all the answers. Assuming a humble position and professing that we do not know everything actually invites others to step forward. This can empower them to live more fully into their own strengths and talents. In the end, humble leadership and empowering others makes for a stronger trustworthy group.
- What are ways that you can assume a more humble role in your leadership?
- What gets in the way of making that happen?
- What is the impact of your more humbled stance on those who follow you?
Followership: I chose to humble myself and follow my Finnish angels. Humble leadership invites the leader into the role of the follower. Being a good leader means that at times, we need to be a good follower. Many lessons learned from the follower position can enhance our leadership and encourage the growth and development of others as future leaders.
- When do you step into the follower role?
- What is required of you to assume that role?
- What impact does your role as a follower have on those you lead?
Gratitude: The glee-filled exclamations of gratitude from the little boys reminded me of the power of thanksgiving. Gratitude is an essential ingredient in our roles as leaders. We have much to be grateful for when we find ourselves in a leadership role; we did not start there. Many things outside of our hard work enabled us to eventually end up in this role. Showing our appreciation for the big things and, more importantly, the little mundane things, is an expression of our valuing of others and their contributions. Appreciation is what builds people up and lets them know their contribution brings significance to the overall project, team, or organization.
- What are the ways you show your gratitude for others on a regular basis?
- How can you make the expression of gratitude a more regular part of your daily leadership?
- Who do you need to thank today?
Getting left behind at the monastery did more than offer me a great story and memory. It taught me a big lesson and reminded me of the small things that make a BIG difference in my leadership.
Nancy Sayer is a director with the Samaritan Center for Congregations, and is a doctoral student with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.