A Reflection on Leadership from My High School Reunion

July 27, 2009

This weekend, I attended my 30 year high school reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  There were about 590 folks in my graduating class, and less than 150 attended the reunion.

I suppose the proper (and safe) thing to say would be “it was great to see everyone!” but that’s just not entirely true for me, and I suspect the same would be true for most others that attended.  In a class the size of mine, it was impossible to know everyone.  And after 30 years, it was impossible to remember everyone that I knew!  But for those that I knew and did remember, when we met again at the reunion, my response varied.  There were those that I:

  • Avoided: Let me first say this is a reflection of me, and I accept full responsibility for my behavior.  I know there are a lot of people that say “I can get along with anyone,” well I am not one of them. From time-to-time I meet people that I REALLY don’t like and because my disdain is usually values based, I personally don’t like to pretend that I do.  There were 2-3 of those folks at my reunion that I avoided and I suspect the feeling was mutual.
  • Shook hands with: I made an attempt to greet everyone that I was near and made eye contact with, even if I did not know or did not remember them.  A hand shake most likely meant either “I don’t remember you but it’s nice to meet you,” or “I do remember you and it is very good to see you again.”  This was the most basic way to show interest and to begin to listen to people that were willing to share something about themselves.
  • Hugged:  There were a number of people for which a hand shake just was not sufficient because we had a more developed relationship.  For me, a hug meant “Of course I remember you; I considered you a friend, now tell me how you are.”
  • Embraced:  There were a few people, less than 10, for which my hug was more than a hug.  For these folks, the message was more: “I loved you, you had a big impact on my life and I really appreciate it, and I have really missed you.”  After the embrace I would grab their shoulders or their hand and really look into their eyes as we talked.  I wanted to know “are YOU still there?”  In almost every case, the answer was “yes”.

We all change – we must, and we should – but I think we embrace the folks we believe have an authentic and unshakeable core that resonates with that purposeful part of us that we also hope will never change.

I think the leadership lessons here are on how we form new and build long-term relationships with folks.  I’d like to suggest the following:

  • Strive to minimize the number of relationships that end up in avoidance.  I don’t think we can eliminate all of these.  In fact, if you take a strong stand on difficult issues, you might make yourself avoidable to some. Be professional enough to be able to work with anyone and everyone, even if you would never eat pizza and drink beer with them on a Friday night.
  • Be embraceable.  You ultimately have no control over who will end up embracing you and what you stand for, but you do control your authenticity and trustworthiness.  When your folks look you in the eyes and want to know “are you there?” be transparent and leave them with no doubt about the answer.  And have the grace to embrace those that may not embrace you.  This involves risk and vulnerability, things that I believe will set you apart as a leader.
  • Be thankful for the hugs and handshakes.  It means you are connecting with people.  Leadership arises from relationship, so it’s your responsibility to form the best relationships you can with your folks, to encourage them to do the same with theirs, and to reward them when they do.

Relationships matter.  Learn from your mistakes in the past and do your best to improve your current and future relationships with everyone you come in contact with.

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Comments (8)

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  1. leslie says:

    LOVED the article and totally agree! As far as male classmates, you would absolutely be in the very small “embraced” category.
    I am so proud of you and love your articles. Wish you were on staff with me!!

    Keep in touch – still love you!
    Leslie Frazier

  2. Leslie! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your comment – I really appreciate it. No doubt in my mind it is still YOU in there – someone so many of us still love very much. Thanks! Bret

  3. Caroline says:

    Once again, another GREAT article! I’m so glad I was one that received an embrace! I’ve so missed you over the years and am SO proud of you and all that you have accomplished! You make us all proud! I love following you….YOU are still YOU and THAT is what makes me most happy. I was so very happy to spend time with you this weekend…..your student are very lucky!

    Love you,

  4. Caroline, you were indeed embraced. To your credit, I think a lot of people feel that way about you. You are very authentic – love that and love you. Thank you so very much for taking the time to read my blog and to leave a comment – I really appreciate it. Bret

  5. Jana Buchman says:

    Dear Bret,

    What an amazingly well written article. Every part was so true and I think all of us felt the same way. I truly hope that you felt “embraced” by me and know that I will always consider you a life long friend. One of those non forgettable people that I made many great memories with. We had an amazing group of friends and those were the people I embraced the other night! Great to see you. 🙂

    Love you,


  6. Jana! Your comments are very kind, which is totally consistent with who you have always been and why you are loved by so many. I do appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and share your thoughts. Thanks!! Bret

  7. Ryan Moore says:

    Whether you realize it or not, you did have had a very positive impact on your friends in high school and college. My memory of you is your intelligence, your friendship and your inquisitive nature. There are just a handful of true friends that are so special to me that words sometime come at a loss, but you are definitely one of them. Keep up the good work.

  8. Ryan, thanks so much for the very generous words. Was so good to see you and to meet your wife. I think you know where you stand with me – rock solid. Thanks for taking the time to visit my site and share your thoughts. Bret