What a Famous Pediatrician Taught Me about Leadership

Think about a leader you admire.

Maybe it is the CEO of your company, the principal of your local high school, or the president of your alma mater.

If I asked you about the specific qualities that made them successful, you’d probably tell me about their hard skills—teachable abilities such as vision and strategic thinking.

But I’ll bet you’d also tell me about their soft skills—interpersonal abilities such as listening, collaborating, and endorsing others.

Yes, the hard skills matter, but in my experience it is soft skills that make a leader memorable—more than their title, degree, acquisitions, or accomplishments. Let me give you an example.

Twenty five years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I attended a presentation by the famous Boston Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton. After delivering his speech to a packed house, Dr. Brazelton took questions from the audience. One woman had a question about breastfeeding her three-year-old child.

A sizeable number of audience members started to murmur regarding the woman’s choice to nurse a child that age. The negative energy unsettled the mother and she paused in the middle of her question. The silence seemed to last forever, but Dr. Brazelton kept his compassionate gaze upon her. It was as if they were the only two people in the room. He nodded for her to continue and she tentatively resumed speaking. When she finished her question, he answered her. He then took the next question.

Why has this stayed with me for twenty-five years? In that moment, I saw Dr. Brazelton as an awesome leader because he didn’t do anything. He cared enough to wait. He held the space for her. The woman at the microphone felt his connection—and I did, too, as an observer. He didn’t play to the audience. He didn’t diminish the woman or her question. And by doing so, Dr. Brazelton allowed me to observe the transformational power of caring by truly listening. That evening, I learned so much from him—far beyond the topic of his speech.

Obviously, listening, caring, and creating a connection are important to me as a coach. It was not Dr. Brazelton’s education or professorships or thirty-page resume that affected me the evening I heard his speech. I was transformed by seeing a self-aware individual care to hear the question of another. It was powerful—and it remains powerful all these years later.

As the years have passed, I recall that night often and use it as a calibration in my own work by asking myself: In what ways am I creating connections like that?

How about you? Taking the opportunity to continually improve is essential to becoming a better, more self-aware leader. Unlike a hard skill, we’re never finished when it comes to improving our ability to listen, to be present, and to validate others. Consider how you can model both the hard and soft sides of leadership in your conversations. You’ll help yourself and others in working together more effectively—and isn’t that wonderful!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in LeaderChat in 2017. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton died in March this year just shy of his 100th birthday. Hospitals and research institutions, together with all of the people touched by Dr. Brazelton’s work, will be honoring his impact and legacy on the anniversary of his one hundredth birthday on May 10.

About the Author

Mary Ellen Sailer headshotMary Ellen Sailer, Ed.D., is a Coaching Solutions Partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team. Since 2000, Blanchard’s 120 coaches have worked with over 15,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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