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The Difference Every Boss Can Make

How seemingly insignificant moments can have a lasting impact on your employees' lives.
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The smallest moments almost always make the biggest difference—whether in our lives, or in the lives of others.

In college I needed a history course to meet general studies requirements so I closed my eyes and chose a European history class.  As I recall there were three textbooks assigned.

I might have bought one of them. By then I had figured out that if I showed up for every class—regardless of the subject—and paid attention, I could easily get a B and occasionally even an A. Doing the reading wasn’t necessary.

(Yes, I took the pragmatic approach to college. Admit it. At least some of the time you did too.)

The professor was Dr. Philip Riley; he’s since retired. The class was a 200-level, sweeping overview course that students tend to dislike and professors probably dislike more, but somehow he made it interesting. During his lectures I actually found myself thinking, "I’d like to know more about that," so one evening I actually opened my textbook.

I eased it closed soon after, taking care not to lessen its value on the used book market. Is anything less readable than a textbook?

Still, it nagged at me. I read all the time when I was growing up but had stopped reading during college. (How ironic is that?) I missed reading.

So I stopped by Dr. Riley’s office, something I never did with any other professor, since my goal in college was to fly so far under the radar a seismograph couldn’t detect me.

"I like history," I said to Dr. Riley, "but I can't get through 'history books,'" I said.  "Can you recommend a few that are maybe a little more reader-friendly?" I know. I was quite the intellectual.

Fortunately he took no offense. Among other books he recommended Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. And I remembered why I liked to read.

He also gave me great advice. "Remember," he said, "you’re reading for pleasure. If you pick up a book and don’t like it, put it down. Never read what you think you should read. Never feel inadequate if you don’t like what you’re 'supposed' to read. Reading is personal. Your opinion is the only opinion that matters."

While I certainly can’t draw a straight line from here to there—I took a 20-year detour in manufacturing—Dr. Riley is a major reason I’m now a writer. Without him I’m not sure I would have found a love for history or for great books and great writing.

A few years ago I thanked him. He replied:

"As you well know the best education is always self-inflicted, so you deserve the credit here, not your tottering old professor."

Dr. Riley is an incredibly smart man, but in this once instance he’s wrong.  Whatever we are today is largely due to the words and actions of other people. Most of those words or actions were, at the time, small and seemingly inconsequential.

Only when we look back can we connect the dots.

That also means we never know when our words or actions might make an impact on someone else: An employee, a customer, a supplier... All it takes is a little encouragement, a little acceptance, a little praise—small actions that are insignificant to us but possibly life-changing for another person.

Even if they don’t realize it at the time. Dr. Riley didn't know what my future might hold. As great teachers—and great people—do, in the best possible way, he didn’t care. He simply took the time to listen and encourage and without knowing it made a big difference in my life.

I like to think I have made that kind of impact on someone. I probably haven't but I like to think so.

It’s not too late, though. Not for any of us.

Last updated: Mar 26, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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