Leadership Can Happen Unexpectedly

Look for random acts of courage — and encourage them

Back Article Feb 6, 2017 By Tania Fowler

Last fall, my husband and I vacationed with my youngest son, Max, who is a high school English teacher working in Hanoi, Vietnam. During a side trip to Cambodia to visit the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, I witnessed an unexpected act of leadership by Max.

A group of 10 tourists from another country were walking in front of us when the matriarch suddenly flung a soda can into the jungle on the temple’s grounds. Her act left us shocked, especially since we were at a World Heritage Site and it was so openly brazen. Yet without hesitating, Max ran into the jungle, retrieved the can and approached the woman, stopping her in her tracks. He simply said, “I think you dropped this” and held out the garbage.

The tourist looked confused and so he repeated himself when an older family member stepped in to translate. Max continued: “There’s a trash can up ahead, can you please put it there?” Shocked and speechless, the woman took the can and put it in her bag. The man who had translated proceeded to walk with us, making friendly chit chat as a way, I think, to save face for his group. We walked another quarter mile or so when the woman spotted the garbage container and quietly threw the soda can away.

This may have been a small act of leadership, but it was one in which Max communicated his message respectfully, clearly, courageously (10 of them to one of him) and with conviction. As both his mom and a leadership coach, I couldn’t have been more proud to witness his response in this unexpected situation.

While there are a mountainous number of books and articles about leadership — on the traits and qualities of good leaders, what it takes to be a leader and whether everyone is capable of being a leader — it’s important to remember that leadership boils down to a couple key things: followers and a crystal clear message. To keep the followers, you need to get the message right.  

Courage and conviction, as Max demonstrated, is integral to delivering an effective message. His message of “please don’t litter and contribute to the destruction of this beautiful, historic place” caused the woman to act differently and to hopefully think before littering in the future.

To be a great leader, you must first know your values and non-negotiables. Max was not willing to negotiate his values in allowing more trash into the jungle. As a result, his message was very clear: Don’t litter.

Second, as you craft your message, consider how it will be received by the people in your organization. Think about their point of view and what it will take for them to buy into your desired outcome.

Third, to deliver your message with conviction, demonstrate how you will also be all-in on the goals and identify the needed actions to be taken.

One of the most important aspects of leadership is being genuine in whatever approach you choose. No BS. Your audience needs to know who you are, what you stand for and where you want to take them.

Finally, as Patrick Lencioni (international best-selling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) always advises, clarify that the message was heard by others in the way you intended. At the end of meetings or discussions, ask what people are taking away as their next steps. Such a discussion is often clarifying as people regularly spin things through their own unique lenses. Usually, more clarification is actually needed.

As in the example with Max and the litterbug, communication doesn’t need to be loud, brash and charismatic to nail a good message. Well-executed leadership opens up possibilities for good things to happen and behaviors to change in a positive way. True leaders are imbued with a desire to leave an impact and do so with a spirit of helping people do something new and unexpected for the good of many. Ultimately, they communicate their convictions in a way that changes the actions of those who are listening.

At times you might get the message wrong and need to correct course, but you will usually get it right when you genuinely care about the cause you are leading and think it through. One of the most important aspects of leadership is being genuine in whatever approach you choose. No BS. Your audience needs to know who you are, what you stand for and where you want to take them. People are generally good at sniffing out frauds.

Finally, as leaders of organizations, we need to keep an eye out for those who are proactive and take initiative, are action-oriented, curious, and willing to learn and adapt. Look for acts of courage and encourage them. We get caught up in resumes, schools and pedigrees and sometimes miss true leaders right in front of us because they come in unexpected packages. When interviewing potential new hires, ask them about unlikely acts of leadership they have initiated, how they communicated their mission and what they learned.

Max’s action may have changed how 10 people forever think about flinging trash … or not. We’ll never know. But if he hadn’t acted at all, there is little chance their behavior would change. The future is dependent on the doers, those who have the courage to step into the void when something needs to change and deliver a clear message on which to act. Only then will we want to follow. 


Lucia Dahlstrand (not verified)February 6, 2017 - 12:04pm

good for Max. Right on. I did a similar thing when I was at anchor in a small Bahamian cove and a power boater threw a bag of garbage into the crystal clear water. I simply recovered the bag and threw it back onto the boaters deck and told them there were containers for that stuff on shore.

Helen Buttel (not verified)February 6, 2017 - 8:21pm

Max did the right thing, and it took courage, conviction, confidence as you say. And you focus effectively on the aspects of leadership manifest in his actions. I'd like to add that along with courage, etc., Max demonstrates humanity-- an essential attribute in a true leader.

Tania Fowler (not verified)February 9, 2017 - 12:50pm

Thanks Helen. You are so right. He did demonstrate great humanity in a country that none of the players called "home". Dare I say, the reason his act impressed me so was his incredible diplomacy and nuance in how he handled his actions. Thanks for your comment.

Jennie Hansen (not verified)March 2, 2017 - 5:06pm

I love this piece because of its anecdote about Max and how you parlay that into a succinct examination of what it means to lead with authenticity and grace--lovely!