Leaders inspire others in many ways. Sometimes with drumbeats, splashes of energy, pearls of insight or bold action. But more often simply through less ostentatious or visible ways. This series of short stories highlights a colourful palette of flavours of how leaders inspire.

One of my many role models is Ken, and in addition to the many lessons and opportunities I’ve had the privilege of receiving from him, this lesson may have been his greatest inspiration on my subsequent career. It was like this…

Can I have a word with you?

Ken was the head of a global leadership development team and he reported to the HR Director of an organization of approx. 25,000 employees. At the time, I was somewhere at the bottom of the HR organization, as a young inexperienced and not even a permanent employee yet. Although I contributed to one of Ken’s projects, I had no illusions that he knew who I was. Until one day I received an invitation to speak to him in his office. Slightly nervous, because I didn’t know what was coming, I went to see him at the appointed time. We sat down, he asked if I liked coffee and then went to get it for me from the machine around the corner from his office. There I was, and the boss of my boss of my boss went to get coffee for me.


The ‘hierarchy trench’

Once we were settled in our chairs, he started talking business. At least that’s what I thought he was going to do. Instead, he started asking me questions about where I lived, what I liked to do on the weekends and so on, which allowed me to share something about myself and put me at ease. He also shared what was important to him and what his personal life was like. Later in the interview, he listened with interest and full attention to what I saw in terms of career aspirations, what I thought I could already do quite well and what I didn’t have much knowledge of. As the conversation progressed, the ‘hierarchy trench’ between us seemed to disappear like snow in the sun. His many questions, his attentive listening, his focus on me and my story also made the time fade away; the planned half hour became an hour and a half. This conversation ultimately proved to be the first in many more conversations we would have together. Our relationship eventually developed into one of mutual respect, trust and human equality despite our different positions.


Interest is attention

And why did he do this? Because he believes that good human relationships based on openness, trust and mutual respect are at the heart of a healthy, enjoyable and successful organization. The beauty of it, and that’s the way Ken is, is that he operates from the belief that human connection is a ‘two-way street’ that begins with genuine interest, time and attention. What I strived for from that time forward is to be like Ken. Talking is something most of us can do just fine and is often done automatically. But taking the time, giving full attention and being genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, is of great value if you do it consciously. This experience changed my outlook on conversations forever from that point onwards.


Which ‘Ken’ has inspired you and how has it shaped you?