As a writer, one of the things that I enjoy discussing and sharing are stories. After all, a great story can entertain, inform, and inspire us, and sometimes even shape our understanding of how we can make a real difference in the world around us.
It’s in that vein that I wanted to share a story with you about a volunteer firefighter and what we can learn from it about how leaders can help their employees to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and maybe even that they are a part of something extraordinary.
In addition to his role as one of the senior vice-presidents of a non-profit organization, Mark also serves as the assistant captain for the volunteer fire company in his town. Now while this voluntary role certainly sounds exciting, Mark is the first to admit that for the most part, his role is pretty much to offer any support the professional firefighters might need.
One night, Mark gets the call that there’s a house on fire nearby and he rushes to the scene to offer assistance, expecting to pretty much stand on the sidelines while the firefighters go to work. As it turns out, Mark was one of the first volunteer firefighters on the scene and the firefighters were still working to put out the fire, so there was still plenty to do.
Realizing that he had a chance to put his training to work, Mark looked around for the fire chief to offer his help. He soon spotted the fire chief holding an umbrella for an old lady who was standing barefoot in her pyjamas in the pouring rain – clearly this was the owner of the home the firefighters were working to save.
Just as Mark reached the fire chief, another volunteer firefighter had presented himself to the fire chief asking if there was anything he could do. The fire chief told this volunteer firefighter to go into the burning house to save the homeowner’s dog. When Mark heard this, he became excited thinking how he could now participate in helping to fight a blaze and so, he asked the fire chief what he could do to help.
The fire chief looked at Mark and said, ‘Mark, I need you to go into that house and retrieve this lady a pair of shoes.’
Clearly, this was not what Mark had expected after hearing what the other volunteer firefighter got assigned to do. But he was still happy to be able to lend a hand and to do something other than standing by on the sidelines.
Unfortunately for Mark, any excitement he had for this task soon disappeared because just as he was leaving the house carrying the pair of shoes he got for the homeowner, the other volunteer firefighter came out carrying the old lady’s rescued dog in his arms. Within moments, there was an eruption of cheers and applause as the old lady was reunited with her beloved pet.
Although Mark’s efforts were not met with as much enthusiasm by the onlookers, he still made sure that the old lady was comfortable with the shoes he got for her before he headed off to see how else he could be of help.
Naturally, Mark didn’t give this encounter much thought, that is until a few weeks later when he received a letter from the fire chief. In it, he included a copy of a letter the old lady had written thanking the firefighters for helping to save her home. The old lady also wanted to let them know how grateful she was that in her time of need, one of them had been so thoughtful and attentive as to get her a pair of shoes from her burning home.
Now one of the reasons why I love sharing Mark’s story is because it reminds us of the power of expectations. In most cases, when people hear this story, there is an understandable tendency to note how simple efforts like getting a pair of shoes can have such a powerful and lasting impact.
But the more important message I want to draw your attention to with this story is recognizing the kind of expectations we create through our leadership, both for those we lead as well as for those our organization serves.
Consider the scene that was before this leader – here he was having to direct his team and a volunteer fire company to help minimize the damage caused by this fire, while at the same time looking out for the needs of this old lady at what was unquestionably one of the worst days of her life.
Despite the numerous demands on his attention and resources, his focus never wavered from what mattered most – on how he could best protect members of his community from harm, while at the same time making sure each of his firefighters felt like valued members contributing to that shared purpose.
As much as this fire chief understood this old lady’s need for reassurance and comfort, he also understood what Mark needed to feel like he was making a difference. That his desire to commit his time, talents, and drive to help others didn’t go unanswered or without notice.
And therein lies a powerful lesson for all leaders to learn – people don’t get excited about being efficient; they get excited about doing work that matters [Share on Twitter]. This is the real differentiator between those organizations that are not only succeeding but thriving, and those that are just trying to get through the month or even the week.
The expectations created by leaders in these thriving organizations revolve around making sure that people not only do work that matters, but that they have the opportunity to do their life’s work.
These leaders recognize that their role is to inspire and empower their employees to bring their best selves to the work they do by creating an environment where people can leave work every day knowing they did something worthwhile.
Indeed, Mark’s story helps us to appreciate that everyone’s efforts – regardless of how big or small it might be – matters. The key difference being how much do we as leaders pay attention to how we communicate and demonstrate that inherent value.
We have to remember that people are not inspired by doing the ordinary, but by the opportunity to be extraordinary [Share on Twitter]. That they have opportunities to know that what they do matters because others see and value what they do.
In Mark’s case, the value he created through that simple gesture was felt not just by the old lady, but by Mark himself because the fire chief took the time to demonstrate to Mark why this effort was important. That in performing this task, Mark got to be a part of something bigger than himself by serving someone in his community in their time of need.
Of course, when we think of people who do extraordinary work, we tend to think of those who achieve something that’s awe-inspiring or incredible. But Mark’s example reminds us that we all have the opportunity to feel like we’re doing extraordinary work; all that’s required is being given the chance to contribute in a manner that creates a meaningful impact on those we serve.
And perhaps the biggest lesson we can all learn from this story is that if Mark can feel like he’s making a difference by retrieving a pair of shoes for an old lady, then the opportunity is most definitely there for each of us to provide our employees with moments to feel like what they do is important; that it matters because others value their contributions and efforts.
Indeed, we don’t have to wait for better times to give our employees the opportunity to be extraordinary [Share on Twitter]. We just have to commit to making that effort today – to being that kind of leader who recognizes how everyday opportunities can be used to make people feel like today, I did something that mattered.
And this story proves that doing meaningful work doesn’t have to be glamourous or exciting. On the contrary, as this fire chief’s example reveals, what’s required here is the willingness to look beyond our To-Do lists in order to truly see and understand those we lead and how we can provide them with opportunities to do their life’s work.
This fire chief’s example reminds us that we can’t focus solely on answering the who and what, but also the why. Obviously, Mark understood who they were there to take care and what his part was to help address what this poor lady was going through that night. But by sharing that letter with Mark, the fire chief took it one step further and communicated to Mark the why.
And notice how this why didn’t have to be communicated at the same time as when the action was being performed for it to still have that tangible impact in communicating to Mark why his efforts mattered.
Again, we can try to convince ourselves that thanks to the frenetic pace and increasing demands we all face at a given day at work, we don’t have the time to communicate to our employees why we do what we do.
But what this fire chief’s example demonstrates to us is that when we care about those we lead, it’s easy to find opportunities to share why their efforts matter [Share on Twitter].
And once we give people opportunities to contribute in a manner that makes a difference, it becomes easier for them to believe in their potential to continue to do such. All that’s required is our continuing to show up and demonstrating to them that we care about both their successes and their ability to thrive under our leadership.
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