Influence by the Inch

teachingThis past year, I served as an aide for after-school homework help. The lead teacher, Linda, explained that only whispering would be allowed during study time. Nice try, I thought while dutifully nodding. Did she really believe that, after seven hours of classes, the students would surrender their after-school time to further regimentation?

She did believe it! And because she believed it, the students believed too. From the first day onward, Linda kept her own voice to a whisper, and reminded everyone else to do likewise. My hearing isn’t the greatest, and I often wanted to tell the kids to “speak up,” but one glance at Linda’s earnest face convinced me to listen harder instead.

It wasn’t just that she lead by example. It was that she was consistent. Relentlessly consistent in following and enforcing her own rules. For example, she expected the students to begin each session by choosing which subjects to study, and to indicate their choice by writing it on the board. Some of the kids viewed this as an unnecessary formality, but Linda reminded them promptly every time they neglected to do it. Her tone was respectfully concerned, as if they’d forgotten something important. By the end of the third week, the habit was ingrained. The students would enter the room, drop their books on their desks, and head for the white board. It became a token of belonging: I’m part of this group and I know the rules.

One time, a  student popped into the room a few minutes early, dumped her books in a heap on the floor and left. Linda looked at the pile of books, looked back at me, back at the books, sighed, then hurried out the door, calling after the student. Uh-oh, I thought, that kid’s in trouble. But when the girl returned, Linda didn’t scold. She said, as if doing the child a favor, “I don’t think that’s the best place for your books. Someone might kick them or step on them.” Linda was like a bulldog in tracking the student down, but a kitten in correcting the behavior.

Linda was a stickler for honesty. Half-truths, omissions and little white lies received immediate correction.  Any departure from the truth triggered a “stop the presses!” delay in the routine, as urgent as if it were a medical emergency. Linda never raised her voice or frowned, but the offending student was taken aside for a private conversation to make sure he or she understood the serious consequences of lying. Afterwards, Linda took steps to help those consequences materialize—coming back to school on her own time to meet with parents and teachers.

Linda’s influence on students and adults was disproportionate to the few hours she spent at school each week, even though we never heard her loudly assert an opinion. She believed in clear, simple standards of behavior, and she acted like they mattered. That’s all.

Now, sitting here on summer vacation, it’s easy for me to admit that Linda was right in setting high expectations for the students. The more difficult lesson (and more important) is that the little things we do, moment by moment, add up to a big impact on the people around us. Leadership is everyone’s job, because we can’t avoid influencing each other. I don’t get to pick and choose which of my behaviors will be noticed and imitated. Any time I’m with other people, I’m influencing them. Humans are social creatures. Beliefs and attitudes are contagious.

I used to think of influence as something wielded through grand gestures and stirring speeches. Leadership, I believed, belonged to people with booming voices or bulging wallets—people able to attract attention to themselves and their opinions.

Linda’s example shows the power of persistent, quiet diligence. If I want others to care about something, I need to act like it matters, all the time, in everything that I do.

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