Maximize Your Defining Moments

January 8, 2014

Though it happened in 2003, I remember it like it was yesterday. A cold, snowy night in San Francisco, a few days before Christmas. Earlier that day, I had conducted a Kirkpatrick Four Levels® Evaluation Certification – Bronze Level program in Chinatown and had taken a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner. Having gotten a late start, it wasn’t until around 11 pm that I began heading back and finally found a cable car departure point.

There was only one more cable car running for the night, and it would arrive soon. There were about eight of us waiting for what felt like an hour. We were all shivering. There was also a homeless man among us. He was heavily bearded, roughly dressed, and appeared to be as cold as the rest of us. I remember his smile and bright eyes. He was singing Christmas carols as he politely walked among us.

No one was paying much attention to him, the homeless man looking for a handout. Finally, the cable car came. Though I am not prone to handing out money to strangers, I did want to give him something for his kind spirit. I looked in my wallet and found two dollars, just enough for me to pay for my precious cable car ride up the hill and to my warm bed.

While everyone else piled on, paying no mind to the homeless man, I had to make an instant decision. Was I to ride up the hill in comfort, or give the Christmas caroling homeless man my last bit of cash and walk to my hotel? Little did I realize that this instant was to be a defining moment for me. I turned my back on him and jumped on the back of the car. As we started up the hill, I peeked over my shoulder for one last look at him. He was standing there, now all alone, looking directly at me. Then he waved, his smile and eyes still bright, and called out to me, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!”

On my way up the hill, tears in my eyes, I vowed that I would watch for him again and perhaps somehow, someday make amends.

Sadly, I never saw him again. But in a way, I have. For me, it is an elderly lady struggling with groceries, a stressed co-worker needing a kind word, or a person in uniform sitting in coach when I am in first class. My point is that now somehow I know when a defining moment is upon me, when I have the opportunity to decide to take the high road or the low road, the difficult path or the easy path. And more often than not, I now choose to act rather than turn my back.

I have had a few of those defining moments professionally as well. These are moments that go beyond offering praise to an employee or offering a helping hand to a co-worker. These are life-changing moments. And when I have decided to take the higher path, the riskier path, it has moved my life and career in directions that I never could have imagined.

One specific event occurred in 2004 when I was working as the training director for a bank. Our CEO had called me into his office to talk about changes he wanted to see in leadership training. It took him all of 30 seconds to tell me that the leadership needed to be “strengthened” and “more effective,” and that it was my job to make it happen. He then summarily dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

I took my cue, turned on my heels, headed for the door and stopped. My defining moment had arrived, and I knew it. I could choose to make my feet move again and continue walking out his door. I would then work with my team over the next few months to develop and deliver a ‘new and improved’ leadership program. That would make him happy. Or, I could turn around, walk back to his desk and say, “Mr. Melton, we have gone down that path before, and it just didn’t work. I feel it only fair to you to tell you that it won’t work this time, either.” And that is exactly what I did. I took the high road, the road less traveled.

I wish I could say that Mr. Melton responded, “Oh, Jim. This is wonderful of you to tell me. Please sit down, and together, let’s find a better way.” He didn’t. Instead, he said something like, “I have told you what I want. Just do the best you can.”

Part two of my defining moment. Again, I could have walked out, but I didn’t. I was committed. “Bud, I really think that this is critical to the future of the bank. Are you willing to at least hear me out?” He was, and our working relationship changed from that moment on. After some urging, he agreed to be the guiding light and champion of a business partnership approach to leadership. He was good to his word, and the culture of the bank changed for the better.

I had stood my ground for what I believe in regarding the four levels. From that day on, despite adversity, I rarely take the low road when it comes to our model and the people we serve.

What about you? Every one of you will have one or more defining moments in 2014. I will not pretend to suggest what they might be, but if you keep your eyes and ears and hearts open, you will know when they have been unveiled for you. When your opportunities appear, I strongly encourage you to take the high road. The going will likely be tough, as we live in a world and are part of an industry that wants to maintain the status quo. But know that you are not alone.

With all sincerity, please let us know when you encounter these moments, when you choose to take the high road, and we will do what we can to support you. My direct email address is, and I commit to personally responding to each of you who shares your experience with me.  

I wish you all a great 2014, and may your bold choices lead you to unanticipated and exciting new opportunities.Jim 

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Additional Resources:

Kirkpatrick Four Levels® Evaluation Certification – Bronze Level

Bringing Business Partnership to Life

Set Your Own “Table”

Getting Stakeholders to YOUR “Table”

Could You Be Replaced by an App – Part 3

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