Of Commemorative Plaques and Elevator Speeches

I was admitted to the practice of law on June 30, 1972. Yep, 40 years ago this month. Apparently I am not the only one who did the math, as in the last few weeks I have received three emails congratulating me on this milestone!  The senders also wanted to sell me something, a plaque recognizing my august anniversary. It is a pretty good deal–“You can save $30 if you order today!” If you’re interested, I’m certain they would sell you a plaque for most any occasion. Your cat’s birthday?  Sure, and there are lots of handsome woods to choose from.

I could not recall a similar offer marking the first, second, or third decade of my time at the bar.  Have I finally reached this juncture? I thought.  Perhaps I do need a tangible reminder of what I’ve been up to all these years? I wondered whether this plaque, once it’s in the possession of one deep into his sixth decade, is the functional equivalent of a Living Will? Or perhaps it’s more akin to an urn for the living–just a slightly different marker of sorts?  Yes, maybe I need a nice wooden marker to show me what I’ve accomplished.

I am indeed one who believes it is a cultural necessity for organizations to celebrate–often with tangible remembrances of a stellar project outcome or a career well lived. Visible proof of the respect and admiration in which colleagues are held, an object that says to everyone “Our leaders know who we are and what we have done to move the company forward.” Surely, there are few things more important than declaring the worth of a person or the value of his or her contributions to the organization.

Equally important is the pride we can take ourselves in what we have accomplished, to inventory the talent and skills we possess.  In fact, confidence grows well in individuals who remember and recall often their life’s successes. The renowned life and sports coach Dr. Joe Parent tells us in his Zen Putting (Gotham Books, 2007) that to acquire fearless unconditional confidence we must come to believe “ … that [we] can handle whatever happens. . . .  The most profound level of unconditional confidence is an underlying belief in your own worthiness as a person.” 

So, my friends, thoughts of our life’s achievements are what allow us to feel worthy. Narcissistic, self-congratulatory plaque-walls and trophy rooms crammed with shiny metal forms and photographs—am I being too harsh on the plaque cyber-salesmen?–don’t help. Internalized pride in our own accomplishments is terribly important, but overt end-zone celebrations–not such a good idea!

Yet the plaque offer did lead me to form a question:  “After all these years if I was asked to give an elevator speech on key attributes I have observed in great corporate leaders, what would I say?”  Know that when I speak of leaders I apply the term both to organizational leaders, and also to personal leadership–an understanding of the need to self-improve, regardless of whether we work in a company or organization or not. So here is my mini-tutorial. Let me know if any of what I say surprises you.

Seek out folks with “soft eyes” to work or socialize with because such a glance is the sign of a core nature alight with the highest aspects of our humanity.  You will find that these individuals are long on empathy and devoid of making crass pre-judgments.  Jeremy Rifkin speaks of certain people who “are not normally soft-wired when it comes to aggression,” and he counsels, instead, “that we stay close to individuals who excel in the art of sociability, attachment, affection, and companionship.” While organic intelligence is important, in leaders compassion and empathy trump smarts every time. Believe me, those are invariably folks with soft eyes.  Those are the ones you want to work for and with.

Second, the advent of transformational technologies has introduced an era of hyper-change. It has never been more critical for leaders to genuinely embrace change. These leaders don’t want to be left behind, and they also have the ability–a gift really, to walk the razor’s edge between respecting tradition while resisting orthodoxy. Want a can’t-miss way to identify these people? They have a deep-seated sense of curiosity! Not only about what lies at the center of life’s mysteries but a curiosity about others’ gifts and talents.  They look outward and they don’t miss a thing going on around them.

Third, great leaders allow you to “jump in the water.”  Recently Jean and I were walking along a beach we had visited the previous year. Ahead was a group of rookie surfers in the water, each accompanied by a mentor. Jean reminded me that when we were there about the same time last year, a surfing instructor stood lecturing on the beach surrounded by a number of students. Over an hour later on our way back, they were all still on the beach, the newbies looking bored and inattentive. Comparing that with what we saw on the beach today, Jean said “I would want to get in the water!”  Yes!  Leaders understand the need for training but they also have exquisite instincts in knowing when it’s time to jump in the water.

Finally, remember that and teach others that we are only sporadically rational, seldom dispassionate.  We all have gaps in our behavioral grid, so we need to be reminded that trusting relationships are fragile and need to be handled with great care!

Regarding the plaque perplex, it dawns on me that to mark my fortieth year at the bar, a plaque from Harry Potter’s school store at Hogwarts would really be neat. I want a polished wooden one that serially materializes the likenesses of the dear friends and great leaders—my teachers all, who have intersected my life all these years. Face after face for me to regard and recall all the wisdom each has shared with me.  Now there’s a plaque worth having!

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About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at www.SantoCosta.com
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