Lessons From Chance Encounters

I had two interesting encounters last week that reminded me of a couple important lessons for leaders. Encounter one found me finishing up the paperwork for mailing a package at a UPS store. A woman came in and apparently was hoping to mail a rather large box while using her husband’s company account number. After some conversation, the UPS rep told her they could not mail the package, as I guess she did not have the right information. After a quick phone call, while loudly announcing to her listener that she could not get help, she stormed out the door. The UPS guy cordially and somewhat mechanically, wished her a good day. Even more loudly she erupted with a clear message that it would be impossible for her to have a good day of any kind.

For those of us left in the store, we just kind of looked at each other and said something like “Wow,” all being surprised by the outburst. About five seconds later, she barged back into the store. With very colorful language she started accusing the reps of laughing at her behind her back and making fun of her after she had left the store. She was mad, and begin letting the reps have it, cussing up a storm as she explained some of her recent woes in just trying to get a package mailed. The rep tried to clarify that he was not laughing at her, and another customer, a twenty something guy, even said he was sorry (for what I have no idea). After a few more condescending missiles from her mouth she left again.

As I was leaving the store, she brushed by me again. The last thing I heard her say as I headed to my car was that she wanted the name of the customer who apologized. As she was going to contact the powers to be at UPS about him. I imagine she had some other colorful descriptions of him, but I did not hear them.

Encounter number two was with a server at a conference I was hosting. She had been attentive during the days and everything was done efficiently. However, the interactions felt a bit more cool than warm. Toward the end of the final day she was seeking to quickly settle up the bill so she could leave. She agreed to wait 15 or so minutes to accommodate me, as my group was wrapping up some last items. Later, when she and I were settling up, she mentioned she was immediately heading home to take care of her husband. I commented that hopefully he was OK. Then she told me he was struggling. Seems a couple months ago, they lost their daughter, and he was in a pretty dark place about it. We talked briefly about how she was holding up, and then she smiled, thanked me for the week, and wished me a good rest of the day. My immediate thought was that she and her family were truly hurting, and that my day was indeed going to be much better than hers was likely to be.

I thought about both of these very different situations and was reminded of a couple of things. First, people have a lot of “stuff” going on in their lives, which we may know little about. And like a computer operating system, that stuff is controlling much of what we are allowed to – and what we are not. Henry Ford was given credit for saying, “How come when I ask for a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?” Always remember you are only getting a glimpse of the whole person. As a leader, you must recognize that people have many hidden and internal forces operating within them at any given time. In retrospect, the server did an admirable job, in spite of some very real life issue with which she was silently dealing.

The next poke I took from this – we sometimes need a second opinion or a second encounter before we start judging others too severely. The UPS customer virtually lost it. My suspicion is that she was modeling a less admirable side of herself. We all reach a boiling point of frustration on things, and then we act in ways we can later regret. Through her swearing and blaming, she was likely having that proverbial bad day. Before writing her off as a loudmouth, self-absorbed, name caller, I would want to see her when things were not so hectic for her.

Yet because first impressions do leave a wake, I will not lament missing the opportunity to get to know her more fully. My guess is neither will the others in the store. So, point number three is to remember that your behavior can have a sizeable impact on other people, and predispose them to view you in an jaundiced way. Be mindful of what you are modeling – at all times.

Context is important (as the Ryan Lochte episode again proved), so be cautious about pigeon-holing people without more of the complete backstory. Keep in mind that you, too, will have bad or unusually stressful days. Hopefully you will get another chance to show people the real you, not just the one you may have shown them in unusual circumstances.

All the best and keep your leadership alive and growing.



  1. Jodi Landers says

    This makes me think of a sign Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor hung on her hospital room door after suffering a stroke, “Please be responsible for the energy you bring into this space.”
    I needed to be reminded of this today – thanks Steve!

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