Capitalizing on Negative Events to Create a Better You

Experience

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”
Mother Theresa on Leveraging Experience

[Article By Avalon Senior Fellow, Jean Michel]

On a hot and humid morning in August of 1962, two young Airmen who had recently graduated from tech school in Amarillo Texas were on their way to the Greyhound Station to catch a bus to the next step of their adventure: a new assignment in California.  One of the young graduates had traveled from his native Hawaii to join the Air Force. The other heralded a much more complicated journey, to include emigrating from Europe to the United States. Despite the differing origins, the shared goal was the same: to dedicate their lives in service to the country they loved.

Having time to kill before the bus departed, the young Airmen stopped in to a local diner for a cup of coffee. The diner was bustling with activity as they chatted amongst themselves and took a seat in one of the open booths. After a long while, a hurried server approached the table and whispered to the new emigrant-turned-airman.  Her whispers were that she could not serve his new colleague and friend. Completely unaware of the current state of segregation in the US, he chuckled and innocently asked why his friend could not be served. When the server cited the color of his friend’s skin as the reason for not being able to serve him, the emigrant was outraged. Certainly, there had to be someone to speak with about this!  He stood up and demanded to speak with the manager immediately.

The exchange had attracted the attention of the other diners, and all eyes were on these young men of such differing origins yet identical goals. The Airman was startled when his colleague grabbed him by the arm and instructed that they should leave…immediately. To the Airman’s chagrin, they did leave — but the echo of that exchange would resonate for decades to follow. The confrontation ended, yet the story had just begun. The young Airman replayed the event repeatedly in his mind during the long bus ride to San Francisco. For him, America represented everything that was good in the world, and this “reality” was a terrible disappointment; however, the incident was not wasted on him as it provided an instant, vivid, and unpleasant understanding of what segregation truly meant. That brutal awareness would go on to shape his approach to the relationships for the rest of his career.  I should know…the Emigrant-Airman was me!

Opportunity and Experience

During my ensuing 30 years in uniform in numerous leadership positions and subsequent civil service career as a senior civil servant, the events of that August morning were forever present to help inform difficult decisions involving personnel actions, discipline, recognition and promotions involving employees of all backgrounds.  The Amarillo experience provided a view of the world seen through different lenses that demanded more compassion, a better understanding of the landscape and the resultant empathy.

The take away from this story… do not let past negative experiences become a missed opportunity or a reason for bitterness.  While you might not be able to change the world, individually there is much you can do to incrementally change things in the world of others.  As a leader, your opportunities to affect change are greater than you might realize.  Change occurs when you make certain there is no ambiguity as to where you stand on the issues, when you do not compromise on what is right, and you do not look the other way when obstacles appear insurmountable.  Very plainly: tackle issues head on and without fear.  Let the manner in which you conduct yourself, lead and treat others be an example for those within your sphere of influence to emulate. Make it known to the world around you that you will not settle for anything short of total respect of basic human rights and equal opportunity –for every human being. Change will come. Steadily. It will come with ripples found somewhere in the memory of injustice. It will come….

As Mahatma Gandhi would say “Be the change you want to see in the world!”

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