Even though I was warmed by the heat of my husband’s body, the chill still crept through the too thin blanket.  Living in Communist Romania meant cold nights of no heat.  I struggled to stay awake.  I could hear his breathing finally deepen and settle.  Time to get up. 

I moved slowly and gentled my steps as I snagged my street clothes to put on over my nightgown in our one other room.  I stepped out and saw the puffs of air formed by my breath, like miniature clouds in the night sky.  I guess it would be nice to have a car.  However, the one-mile walk in the brisk air would keep my energy up, if I didn’t break my neck on the jagged cobble stones.  The dark walk with no streetlights lit was a challenge.  The dark walk was my prayer.

I tried to muffle the noise of the creaking outdoor steps.  I fumbled for my key and cautiously turned it in the lock.  I could hear jagged breathing.  I made quick work of taking off my street clothes layer to get to my nightgown and got under the covers before the cold could make my teeth chatter.

I very gently wrapped my arms around what was left of my aching mother and tried my best to comfort. I fell into a deep slumber.

Too soon, groggy, but knowing it was time to go home.  I lay a gentle kiss on her cheek and retraced my steps.  I hurried back on still dark streets.  I just wanted to be in time to lie with my husband before he had to wake up.  This was my nightly ritual.  This was my rite.

The main character in that story is my aunt. As I recount that story, I ask myself, “Who does that?”  My aunt who brightened the light in everyone’s life.  My aunt who continued to call me her little chick well into my adulthood.  My aunt who loved being in America watching soap operas and would hold my hand impatient to hear me translate the latest twist in love gone wrong or gone right.  She was the most special being in my life growing up and I was certain I was most special to her.

At her celebration of life about five years ago, we were weaving memories into a beautiful life quilt.  There were people there from all over the world.  We were all shocked when one after another of us talked about how we felt we were her “favorite.”  We teasingly looked at each other with hands on hips exclaiming, “But I was her favorite!”  It was then I realized how much more exceptional she was than I had ever thought.  She had the ability to make all of us feel like we were special to her.  She was an unparalleled human being.

I have worked with hundreds of leaders, but I have only met 3 or 4 who share my aunt’s gift.  I call them unparalleled leaders.  One of them was president of a 2.8-billion-dollar division of a fortune 100.   He stuck his neck out for me, stealing me from another division where he had previously worked and tested my mettle.  After he hired me in the new division, when I achieved an important milestone he publicly said, “See I told you she has this work superpower to bring people together and inspire them.”   This happened two decades ago, and I still remember every word.  The thing is, whether it was the janitor, someone on the manufacturing floor or a vice president, he made everyone feel like they were essential.   He would talk to them as if their potential was already realized.

Did he have business savvy?  Yes, he did.  Did he have to make tough decisions like a 3000 employee lay off? Yes.  Did he grow the business and manage the bottom line? Absolutely.  He, of all leaders I have met in the business world was able to integrate the business and human side of work.  But what made him unparalleled was his ability to make each person feel like they were necessary for the success of the organization.  This skill helped him align thousands of employees in using their unique work superpower to create a high-performance culture and embody organizational excellence. 

What is the magic formula?  I think there are three keys to be an unparalleled leader, or in my aunt’s case, an unparalleled human being.

Key #1:  Not normal listening. 

Not just listening to what someone is saying but listening for what there is to admire and respect in them and reflecting it back.  Is this easy, heck no!  I think most of us, including me, listen for what we agree or disagree with in a conversation.  AND that is a very different focus from that of an unparalleled leader.

Key #2: Juggling two plates. 

Being able to discern and dialogue about where you agree or disagree, WHILE looking for what there is to admire and respect in the other person and reflecting it back.  Now as if key #1 isn’t hard enough we are having to focus on two different things at the same time.

Key #3: Midwifing. 

Finding the person’s work superpower and holding up a magnifying mirror.  Stoking the fire of that person’s gift and helping to birth it into the world.

Can I summarize what unparalleled means?  I think it is about helping people see and become the best version of themselves, so they stand a little taller. And in the end, we all leave the world a better place.