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What an old pocket watch says about your unique worth and leadership

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In order for individuals, families, organizations and communities to thrive, people must see value in others and feel that others see the value in them. Seeing deeply and expressing powerfully the worth and value of others is one of the ultimate imperatives for dynamic leadership in the 21st century.

An unattributed modern parable, that has taken many forms on the internet is a good illustration. Here is my version of it:

A dying father called his son to his bedside and presented him with an old pocket watch. The father said, “Your grandfather gave this watch to me. It is more than 200 years old. But, before I give it to you, I want you to go to the watch shop and tell the owner you want to sell it. Ask him what price he would pay for it.”

The son went to the watch shop and then returned to his father’s bedside. He reported, “The watchmaker said he would pay $5 for the watch because it is old and scratched.”

The father then said to the son, “Go to the coffee shop and ask the owner if he would be interested in buying the pocket watch and what he would be willing to pay.”

The son ran to the coffee shop and quickly returned. He told his father, “The coffee shop owner said he didn’t have much use for an old pocket watch but offered $3 for it.”

Finally, the father told the son, “Go to the museum and show them the watch.”

The son left for the museum and returned with a look of astonishment on his face. He whispered, “Father, the curator at the museum offered me $1 million for this pocket watch!”

The father laid his head back, closed his eyes and said: “I wanted you to experience for yourself that the right place, and the right people, will value your value in the right way. Never put yourself in the wrong place, with the wrong people, and then get angry when you don’t feel valued. Don’t stay in a place, or with people, that don’t value your value. Know your worth and while being confident in your own value look for the value and the potential worth of others.”

Avoid the watch shop and coffee shop owners of the world who will never appreciate or understand your value and worth.

The first lesson of this parable is vital: We must value our own value. This is about confidence, not arrogance, and our ability to feel assured in who we are and what we bring to any situation whether at work, home or in our community.

Along with recognizing our value we must also avoid putting ourselves in the wrong place, with the wrong people, who don’t value our value. 

An abusive spouse, partner or friend is unacceptable. A boss that is belittling or a bully, a contemptuous colleague or a demeaning online connection is intolerable. While it is often hard to extricate one’s self from such relationships, I repeat: We cannot thrive and should not stay in a place, or with people, that don’t value our value.

Avoid the watch shop and coffee shop owners of the world who will never appreciate or understand your value and worth. Look for the museum curators, and true leaders, who will not only acknowledge and appreciate but actually amplify your value.

The second lesson of the parable is for leaders. True leaders are always looking for, observing, finding, acknowledging and enhancing the value in others, even if it requires looking really hard past a rough exterior, immature personality, youthful inexperience or hardened attitude. Like the pocket watch, there may well be immense value in what appears common or even defective. 

Sadly, too many so-called leaders today are only interested in their own value. They spend their days promoting their own agenda, preserving their own power and preventing anyone else from exposing their flaws and failings.

Such business leaders regularly deploy tactics that model many modern politicians. In an effort to preserve their power and position, they manage-up in a way the creates division and isolation while perpetually keeping those they are supposed to lead off balance, uncertain and without a confident voice.

Wanting to control the narrative about their own performance, especially to those above them, they place their own safety and security about the good of the organization. They regularly and purposefully create silos, diminish those with knowledge beyond their own, drive wedges between employees and other leaders and build Teflon walls around their minions and allies. 

Helping others feel valued is not merely about pats on the back or words of praise. Often it is simply in noticing and acknowledging what matters.

During my consulting career, I saw far too many organization and far too many men and women attempt to lead this way. Their companies flounder and often fail. They feel threatened by the value and strengths of others, and their inability to see the worth of people around them becomes an Achilles’ heel to the would-be leaders. It crushes company culture and dooms organizations of all kinds. 

In such an environment, great talent leaves. Such talented people, who recognize their value, quit leaders long before they want to quit the company. What remains in the organization are people content with mediocrity, those with the ability to manage up and, sadly, once-great performers who stay but disconnect their drive, passion and skill because it becomes too painful to care. With no leader to acknowledge their value, people begin to doubt they possess any.

I have watched and been blessed by many extraordinary leaders who recognized whatever value I possessed and encouraged me to use and apply it more.

One leader, who was neither my boss or my colleague, could tell I had written a speech someone else had given in front of a large audience. He said he saw my fingerprints on the speech and remarked how he would like to hear those words delivered in my voice.

Helping others feel valued is not merely about pats on the back or words of praise. Often it is simply in noticing and acknowledging what matters. At the end of a long and exhausting international tour, a world leader came up to me and thanked me for my efforts. He asked, “Are you taking anything home with you from the trip?” I answered that I was taking home some inspiring observations, transformational lessons and never-to-be-forgotten memories. This authentic leader then presented to me a most extraordinary gift with an even more important message of value, “Please accept this as a physical reminder of this special and spiritual journey.”

As leaders, it is easy to function like the watch and coffee shop owners — oblivious to the value of those around us. True leaders are museum curators — always on the lookout for priceless value.

New York Times columnist David Brooks said that the test for our country is for its citizens to “see deeply and be deeply seen.” I would add that our families, communities and organizations will thrive when we see deeply and express powerfully the worth and value we see in others, while feeling that others see the value in us and honestly acknowledging our own unique worth.