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Defining Moments

Seasoned leaders will tell you that there were defining moments—those instances in which their values and judgment were revealed—that played a disproportionate role in how they and others thought about their success. Some of these situations involve “right versus right” situations, which is how Joseph Badaracco described defining moments in his book by the same title. For example, according to the values of loyalty and honesty/transparency, it would be both right as a manager to keep quiet a company’s upcoming announcement about layoffs and it would be right to want to prevent soon-to-be-laid-off employees from making major new purchases like a house or car. Yet in collecting the experiences of thousands of practicing managers, I’m convinced this is too narrow a definition. Some defining moments involve what the person facing the situation believes is clearly a “wrong,” and the reason it’s a defining moment ‘is because the person has to decide whether they have the courage and the competence to execute a productive response. For instance, watching your hard-working team be publicly denigrated by a higher-up clearly feels wrong to people who have experienced that situation. For them, the defining moment comes in deciding if, and how, to respond to that senior leader who is unfairly abusing the team. And there is no other obvious “right” at play other than one’s own self-interests (be that protecting one’s status or lifestyle, longer-term career objectives, family’s well-being, and so on).

My research over the past decade reveals that when people don’t respond in defining moments (out of fear, short-term self-interest, or unrecognized cognitive distortions) or don’t respond well (due to strong emotions or insufficient communication skills), they often feel regret and other negative emotions for a long time. For example, regret can linger for decades for people who “know they should have done something.” Other people are proud that they took action, but regret “how” they acted and wish they had had better skills to help them be more effective and/or avoid negative consequences. Thus in this course students have an opportunity to do two primary things: 1) consider their own (and others’) instinctive reactions to numerous defining moments as a vehicle for understanding both what’s most important to themselves (and others) as they go forward as a leader and what skills they need to hone to successfully face the challenges associated with those priorities, and 2) to practice using the kinds of tools and skills that can help them navigate the most difficult kinds of work experience with as much emotional and behavioral competence as possible.