This week I spoke to a room full of mostly millennials at a meeting in Cincinnati. I love speaking to millennials. They are engaged. They are passionate. And they ask the most meaningful questions. Here was one of their questions, “What was the biggest mistake you made in your career?”
Years ago, early in my career, I was the executive director of a non-profit organization. Each year the organization held an annual wine & cheese fundraising event to raise money for scholarships. We held the fundraising events in people’s homes. One year we held a fundraiser on the west coast in a beautiful mansion, owned by a longtime donor. I’d never seen a nicer home.
The organization’s job was to provide expensive wine and cheese. As host of the event, they opened their home to a couple hundred of their closest friends. This was a big-ticket event that raised over $100,000.
Two days after the fundraising event, our development director came to my office with an issue. She was in tears. Apparently, she learned, the host of the wine & cheese fundraiser did a little wine “swap”. When the wine company delivered the Silver Oak ($100 a bottle) to their home the morning of the event, the host instructed them to put the wine in his basement wine cellar. And during the event that evening, the Silver Oak never came out. The host decided to serve much less expensive wine.
The development director shared with me that she was certain that this “swap” was intentional, as she overheard the host instructing the servers not to bring out the Silver Oak from his wine cellar. And then she asked me one of the most important questions of my young career, “What are you going to do about this?”
I immediately called a few board members of our organization and relayed the issue. They decided to round up the entire executive committee for a conference call a few days later to discuss. And here’s what they recommended.
“Tommy, this is a six-figure donor to our organization. If we confront the donor about not serving a few thousand dollars of expensive wine, we will surely lose his financial support. So, we suggest you accept the six-figure donation that was presented at the event and turn a blind eye to the wine swap.”
I was young. I was impressionable. And I was not yet, deeply rooted in my heart-led leadership philosophy. I listened to the board’s recommendation and I turned a blind eye.
A week later our development director was back in my office. She handed me her resignation letter. She told me that she was disappointed in my decision not to stand up to our board’s recommendation. She felt the right thing to do was to return the six-figure check and ask the event host to return the expensive wine.
Decades have past. And there is, honestly, not a month that goes by that I don’t think about this story. And there is not a day that goes by that I wish I would have handled that situation differently.
I ran into this former development director a few years ago at a restaurant. We exchanged pleasantries. But I could see it in her eyes. After all this time, there was still such a huge disappointment in my lack of character. In my lack of leadership.
I can’t undo what happened decades ago. But I can use this story and my mistakes as teaching points for others to learn from.
“Blind Eye” are two words that should never be used in the same sentence as leadership and character. “Blind Eye” are two words that are not in the vocabulary of those that lead differently. “Blind Eyes” are for cowards. For the weak. For the naive.
Heart-Led Leaders never turn a blind eye. Heart-Led Leaders stand up for what is right, no matter the cost. And when they do, that is something to celebrate and break out the expensive wine for!