I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a while and was gladly reminded of how she serves as an inspiration to me because of a specific event almost a decade ago.
There was a big event in Boston, to which I had a few of my students come and exhibit their work. It was one of those big gatherings where there were over ten thousand people from all around the country. One of the students had just given a presentation together with me that went well — it was her first such presentation and was still only a college sophomore so it was a real point of achievement and excitement for her. And when we returned to the exhibiting area she quickly turned pale because her purse appeared missing — we were all so exhausted with the preparations for the show, and so only naturally her sense of unfortunate surprise turned to unhappy tears.
And then something quite special happened. One of my other students, an exceptionally sturdy freshman (who I hear is getting married now — oh how time flies), walked up to her in a matter-of-fact kind of way and said softly, “Do you need a hug?” “Yes,” was the happy/sad reply. The two students didn’t know each other that well, and to see this kind of supportive camaraderie on our budding team was quite rewarding as a leader. It all felt right, but what was even more rewarding and humbling came a few seconds afterwards.
The friend I mention at the head of this post was walking the exhibition floor at the end of the day. She was in charge of logistics for the event that year — a gargantuan task that she was still on day two of three days. I waved to her as she walked towards us — she noted the comforting but sad embrace between the two students. “What happened?” she asked. I explained the high, and then the low, and then the hug. And I immediately saw her hand unhesitatingly reach into her own purse as she walked over to the two young women while saying, “Well … a girl’s got to have some cash. Can I lend you some money until you find your wallet?” I was struck by her absolute kindness for someone she didn’t even know. But for my friend, despite her long day of countless forms of triage with the large event and her accompanying fatigue, it seemed like helping out a complete stranger with such plainhearted kindness was an absolute given. She led without the pretense of “leadership” — she simply did the right thing. I jumped in and explained to my friend I would take care of the situation and thanked her for her kindness. My entire world changed that day.
So the unsolicited kindness from one student to another, with a spontaneous and supportive hug. And the kindness from a stranger to another person in need without any hesitation at all, were two real treats that day — both exhibiting the most elegant form of leadership: giving and serving in unhesitating ways. It was a humbling, formative experience that I was happy to remember this week. -JM