Defining Moment

What is most crucial to the success of a manager – a strong undergraduate education? Top-notch grad school? A steady rise through one company, or a deep understanding of several companies?

How about this: None of the above. Instead, consider the importance of a defining moment.  That defining moment – or more likely, series of moments throughout life – shapes a person’s work ethic and attitude about creativity. It goads, inspires, and warns a manager about how to handle difficult situations.

A defining moment usually centers on a clash between one’s personal beliefs and the culture of an organization. You have to choose between what your heart tells you and what your boss wants. The best solutions that come from these moments mix innovation and ethics.

A true defining moment involves a “combination of shrewdness and expediency, coupled with imagination and boldness,” according to Joseph Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School. Coming through a defining moment helps someone come to his or her own understanding of what is right.

When I think about defining moments, I think about a leadership expert who ought to be a household name. She’s Frances Hesselbein, who has a gift for running businesses and nonprofits. She is the only person who can claim to have served as CEO of the Girl Scouts as well as a leadership expert at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (She’s the first woman as well as the first non-graduate in the chair, named in honor of the Class of ’51.)

When Francs talks to business leaders, she often discusses a defining moment at a time when she was pushing the Girl Scouts to unparalleled growth, inclusiveness and significance.

In brief:

A man went on TV claiming he’d found a pin in a Girl Scout cookie. Soon, more than 300 people echoed that story. This came at the height of the organization’s key nationwide fundraising event. A PR firm urged Frances to continue cookie sales and refuse to comment on the allegations until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finished investigating seven cookie factories.  A board member objected, but Frances followed the advice.

Three days later, the FDA determined that the first pin couldn’t have gotten into the cookies before the box was opened by the consumer. In addition, the FBI announced a $25,000 fine and 20 years in jail for anyone behind a hoax.

“Immediately, the pins in the cookies disappeared,” Hesselbein likes to say.

One vital lesson of that defining moment for her: When you get good advice from an expert, follow it.

Frances attracts first-rate talent from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.  She credits that to a defining moment in her childhood, when she visited her grandparents in a Pennsylvania coal mining town. Here’s a video of her describing that moment:



When Frances tells that story, universally others come up to Frances to tell her their story. Here is Warren Bennis, a pioneer in leadership studies, telling Frances about a defining moment in his life: