As a leader, you must always be observant of what is going on around you. Literally you need to observe, listen and sense in a 360 degree circle in real time. To truly be effective, you need to have your radar up and running at all times because you never know when you can make a difference.
Recently, I was walking to my car after a meeting with the Air Force Academy Director of Athletics and I chanced upon a cadet walking back to the cadet area. She seemed deep in thought and very preoccupied. I turned and asked her how she was doing. I could tell she was thinking, “who is this stranger and I don’t have time to talk to him.”
I persisted and once again asked how she was doing.
She said “fine”, but I could tell something was wrong. I introduced myself and reminded her that I had talked about leadership with her cadet class about six months before. She seemed to remember and then finally told me about her recent academic and discipline challenges. I listened carefully, paused and related to her some similar challenges I faced 40 years before when I was cadet. We talked about the struggles of having to study harder to make better grades, and that when you break the rules you must be a leader and accept the consequences of your bad decisions. I asked her what her personal goals were and she said she wanted to graduate from the Academy and be commissioned an officer in the Air Force.
I remember all those many years ago when I was restricted to my room studying and serving confinements. I would get depressed and start feeling sorry for myself. To keep my motivation up, I would look at a picture of my class ring and remind myself why I was at the Academy. It helped me on my darkest days. This cadet was still a year away from ordering her ring, so I gave her my tie tack which had the Air Force symbol on it. I told her that she must never give up on her goal and that when she was down in the months to come, she should hold that small Air Force symbol in her hand and let it remind her why she was at the Academy. She took it, said thank you and said she had to get back to class. As she walked away, I realized that I never even got her name. I told my wife about this encounter and put this chance meeting out of my mind.
However, much to my surprise, two days later I received an e-mail from the cadet’s father. In part it said:
“Hello Mr. Lorenz, I have not had the honor of meeting you, but…my daughter, though, has had the opportunity. You see, my daughter was the cadet you came across two days ago outside Clune Arena. Although you may believe it was a chance encounter, she believes it was something quite different. Her exact words to her mother and I was that running into you was ‘a sign.’ What you told her and said to her had a huge impact on her, one that she will never forget. You helped her to reaffirm her commitment to the Academy and why she went there.
“After a hard day with some difficult conversations and the normal struggles that most cadets face, she was starting to question whether she belonged at the Academy. Suddenly, you appeared, and were kind and compassionate enough to realize she was in need of a sympathetic person who could relate to her. Your conversation impacted her greatly, and she left your encounter more determined and intent on graduating because she received (your message) when she needed it most.
“Her mother and I live close to 650 miles away. We couldn’t be there for her at that moment, but we want to thank you for taking the time to stop and help someone in need. Taking time and having the patience to listen, be understanding, sympathetic, and impacting a stranger’s life forever. This is not an exaggeration, but a fact we feel strongly about. There was a reason you were there to help her and, for that, we will always be thankful to you. We just wanted you to know the influence you had on our daughter and that you made a difference in her life that day … Thank you again!”
Let me emphasize that this story is not about me. I was just there and asked the cadet how she was doing. It is about observing those around you and making a difference when you least expect it. If you are observant, even chance encounters provide an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. So, the next time you are out among people, even if you are just walking down the street, take the time to notice each one as an individual. You may have the chance to make a huge difference.
PHOTO: General Stephen Lorenz, Air Education and Training Command commander, visits with 312th Training Squadron students at the fire academy Sept. 8, 2008. Lorenz retired from the Air Force Jan. 1, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John Barton)