Leaders Are Big – But Forget It

Last week I wrote about how my former TA, Hannah figured she was being listened to and appreciated, because, as she said, “I get invited to a lot of meetings.”  That story prompted this response from a reader:

“I remember very vividly one early morning when I was working in the Executive Office, and Governor Granholm appeared in my office to ask something about the weekly radio address that she was recording later that morning. Writing the radio address was my responsibility, and I answered her question adequately but not comprehensively… She said, ‘Well X [omitting name], how about you show some leadership on this?’ And then she left. Whatever the issues was, it was not exactly in my lane. But that didn’t matter to her, and her point was that it shouldn’t have mattered to me. She wanted her staff to be doers and leaders in whatever we did, for the good of our efforts for the state. If you see an issue, show some leadership and take care of it! That point stuck with me, and I actually make the same exhortation pretty regularly now…”

I forwarded this response to my wife (the above-referenced Governor Granholm), and she replied, “There’s another lesson embedded in that comment: I had no idea that a simple remark like that would have a long term impact.”  But she remembered a story in her early professional life:  “I’m sure the partner at Townley & Updike doesn’t remember the exchange with me about the coin on the copier.”  Back in 1985, this law partner told her a story about his approach to ethics, and in the thirty ensuing years she and I have each recounted that lesson — tens if not hundreds of times. She concluded: “Amazing how these small examples end up figuring so prominently into one’s life.

Hence the title for today:  “Leaders are big – but forget it.” The little things we say can really sink in when we have some authority, and especially when we have had little contact with a subordinate who may well be far down the chain from us. The “big person’s” power magnifies the impact of their criticism and/or their challenge.  For example, I remember Senator Carl Levin on a conference call asking with what seemed like considerable irritation: “Who wrote all this purple language, anyway?” Man, was I glad I wasn’t physically in the room, with all eyes upon me, as I mumbled my confession, “Sir, I wrote that brief.” I am 1000% certain Senator Levin today has ZERO recollection of that encounter.

Governors and Senators, Dads and Moms and Teachers and Rabbis and CEOs and Directors…forget the incredible power they have in a few choice words.

The long comment from the reader spotlights an area of opportunity.  Authorized leaders have enormous power to challenge their followers to rise to the occasion! Gov Granholm said, “Step up” to that then-young man who now leads others…with the same powerful language.  Leaders have a unique ability to encourage people to step up.  Are you using all your capacity to do so?

Invite leadership as you

Lead with your best self!


  • Hi Dan,
    I’m curious and have a couple of questions about today’s post: 1) What is “purple language”? and 2) could you please share the story of the coin on the copier?
    I always enjoy reading your posts – it gets me thinking first thing Monday mornings.
    Be well,

  • Lead by example. I was soliciting a donation from our church trustees in early 1976 when, during a break, a friend that owned the largest real estate firm in SWMI approached me saying, “these people are listening to you, but they don’t hear you.” He went on to advise me to get my real estate license and do what I was professing and lead the charge of community development in the area. Whirlpool became the largest sponser of Habitat for Humanity and gained non-profit status for the redevelopment of Benton Harbor, MI, which Governor Granholm participated in.
    Harry Gast co-authored his 1st legislation, The Home Improvement Act of 1976, which became my platform in the revitalization of the Silver Beach neighborhood, that was the demonstration project getting the executive officers attention convincing their Board of Directors support of Habitat. SWMI, Whirlpool and the aging population it attracts continues to follow that “leading by example.” We’ve now got a beautiful golf coarse called Harbor Shores as a result.
    I met you speaking in Grand Rapids as I was awarded a mentoring honor by Business Review of Western Michigan in 2008.

    • Pete,
      First, apologies that my smart software put your comment into “moderation.”
      Thanks for sharing that story. I remember meeting you. I think your story adds such a great twist to “how come they’re not listening to me.” You went and got credentials, right? Sometimes, that’s what it takes to be invited to the table.
      Of course, the larger lesson — in my view — is “If not me who? If not now, when?”
      Thanks for sharing your great story!

  • I wondered too about the coin on the copier… but I wanted to comment that teachers (at all levels) have an influence that they are often not aware of. I’m thinking of remarks made in an intro class or in an office hour which isn’t part of a grand lecture to graduate students or even undergraduate majors, just something which resonates and therefore sticks with a student who may never again take a course from you or in your discipline.


  • Hello Dan,
    This article could answer many questions for parents of young children (young enough to still emulate parents) who are wondering where their kids come up with “strange” ideas and behaviors. They might want to consider that an off-hand remark made within the hearing of their children might resonate and take hold. It is a revealing and quite frightening consideration!

    All my best,

  • A version in education circles is the student who returned after graduation and thanked the Superintendent for the education and how his career was off to a great start, he was just staring his 5th job in two years, and he owes his success to the education and the works the superintendent spoke to him as he walked across the stage to receive his diploma. Oh and what were those words? the superintendent asked, thinking he said so many profound things. The student answered, I’ll never forget it, as you handed me my diploma you looked me right in the eye and said those words, you said, “keep moving”

    We truly do not know what words will have an impact on another person.

  • Mike,
    This is truly a milestone moment for “Reading for Leading.” Humor has appeared!!! 🙂
    That story (joke) is hilarious and profound at the same time.
    Thanks for sharing it. Now, keep moving, will ya?

  • I was doing a briefing for Senator Levin early in my careering on a product my organization had developed using the Internet in the early 1990s. He stopped me to ask me what the Internet was. I like to believe to this day that my explanation was so clear that I can take credit for explaining the Internet to one of the finest Senators that has ever represented Michigan.

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