Not an Early Journaler…But Wish I Had Been
Truth be told, I’ve not been one to keep a journal. For most of my life, I’ve made a steady practice of deeply reflecting in my head. I routinely think and rethink about things that stand out to me for whatever reason, and park the thoughts, feelings and observations in my mind. When something subsequently happens that seems related, I conjure things up and explore the connections. As relationships emerge, I start looking for the “why” that explains how the ideas all fit together and hope for insight.
I’ve figured out a few good things this way. Yet, there’s not much discipline to it and I wonder how much learning across my life I’ve missed as a result. Furthermore, when insights do occur, they don’t always come quickly. In fact, it can take years to realize something profoundly important. Here’s a case in point.
Decades ago, I can remember feeling so grateful to learn I had been accepted into a psychology graduate program. Forever, I had wanted to become a psychologist. At this point I was two years out of college and was ready to work hard to achieve my goal. In the first year of the four-year program, I was required to take three semesters of Statistics for the Social Sciences. I wasn’t thrilled about this. In fact, I was worried. I had taken stats in college, and while I had done ok in the class, I really didn’t learn a thing. Class time was meaningless. I was lost in response to a very smart, but detached professor who seemed to be in a world of his own when it came to teaching statistical methods and concepts.
Mari: A Different Kind of Leader
Capture Key Events
Then, in graduate school there was Dr. Mari JK Brown. What a difference a professor makes! I can still see her in my mind’s eye. Always wearing a white lab coat, Mari was a brilliant, smiling Scandinavian with jet black hair, interspersed with grey streaks. When asked a stats question, she would pause, take a long inhale on her cigarette and then answer with consideration and clarity for whomever was asking. Most importantly, Mari was patient beyond words when it came to teaching statistics to her students.
My first stats exam in graduate school has been unforgettable, even after all these years. Although I had spent hours preparing, I found myself struggling with many of the exam questions. As time wore on, I became humiliated and increasingly anxious watching other students leave the room one by one. I presumed that they breezed through the exam, which distracted my focus and added to growing anxiety. Time was running out, and I was stuck on a problem worth many points. I approached Mari and mumbled something about asking for “clarification.” She observed me carefully and listened intently. Then, right before my eyes, she took her pencil and my exam paper and wrote out the entire answer to the question, explaining the logic to me in the process.
I was stunned. I hadn’t asked her to do this! I remember thinking “how is she going to grade my test now that she has given me the answer!”
Back at my apartment, I kept reflecting on the event. Never had I experienced anything like it in all my years of test taking. All of I could think was that Mari must really want me to understand statistics—more than anything else. While I was consumed with getting grades, she was focused on enabling my ability to learn. This was incredibly meaningful to me and it inspired me to think differently about my role as a student in pursuit of becoming a psychologist.
By the following week, Mari helped me connect with another grad student who was willing to tutor me. Between Mari and the tutor, I was making real progress. By the end of my four-year program, not only did I successfully complete the three classes, I also had elected t to take independent studies in statistics with Mari. I even selected statistics as a minor subject in my doctoral comprehensive exams. (This was a pass/fail exam, thank goodness!) I remember Mari bowing to me when she announced that I had passed.
Intermittently over the years, I would still think about the stats exam miracle event. I would still feel such gratitude and fondness for Mari, that I would make donations in her name at the university to honor her memory. Clearly, she made a difference in my ability to successfully complete graduate school. As it turns out, however, this is only the tip of the iceberg compared to what I eventually learned from Mari Brown and others like her—many, many years later.
Long Term Impact of Extraordinary Leaders
Fast forward to the year 2020. By now, I had been working as an organizational psychologist for several decades in the areas of leadership and organization development. We were in the midst of the pandemic when two colleagues and I decided it was a good time to compile our research and write a leadership book on what makes a “best boss.” Our purpose was to infuse something positive into our world at a very dark time. Our data included stories told by employees about the best leader they had ever encountered, like the story below.
“He made me realize that I wasn’t just the best of the mediocre options. That I was actually… that I had opinions…I can remember talking in a meeting and there he was with his hand behind his ear, helping me by encouraging me to speak up and speak out. He would talk to me later on and give me feedback. I heard you or I didn’t hear you at the end of your point. He would say, “I’m an old man and I need to hear you!” He was constantly challenging me like that but made it so low risk. He made it like a joke. It came with such support I knew that it came from a place of love.” (Ferguson et. al, 2021)