Doing the Unexpected

Donovan (Don) was 12 years old when he learned a lesson that would become how he was known for the rest of his life. His father had given him a lawn mower instead of an allowance so he would appreciate the value of money. That began him on an entrepreneurial career. It also provided two other life lessons.

In Don’s neighborhood lived an elderly widow with limited resources. Her lawn, which was immaculate when she could take care of it, was overgrown. When Don asked if he could mow it for her, she informed him she had no money. Aware that she probably wouldn’t accept charity, Don agreed to mow the lawn for a quarter. For the rest of the summer he kept her lawn in its former pristine condition. But what he did that was unexpected was to bury each quarter in her front porch flower pot. He knew that she would find the quarters once late fall killed the flowers. Doing the unexpected was the second lesson he learned.

Many of Don’s friends also had lawn mowing businesses in their neighborhoods. When Don told him what he had done, each of them started doing the same thing. That was the third lesson: inspire others to do the unexpected.

Don continued his mission of doing the unexpected in high school when he adopted a newly arriving student who came from Afghanistan. He tutored her, made sure other girls befriended her, and even taught her the rules of American football. As before, he was able to encourage his friends to follow his lead with other immigrant students.

Throughout college, Don continued to do the unexpected and encourage others to follow his lead. After college, Don did pursue an entrepreneurial career path, and 10 years later he had a thriving business.

What distinguished Don’s business from others was the incredibly low turnover rate. From the moment a new hire signed an employment agreement, Don began communicating with them with personal notes on career issues. He shared his own story and invited them to share theirs. When they arrived the first day, Don was there at the front door to greet them. New hires were invited to senior management meetings and were encouraged to participate. It wasn’t unusual for any employee in the company to get a call from Don asking for their opinion. He sent each of them birthday wishes and tried to do something special at key moments in their lives.

Don also encouraged his direct reports to follow his lead. Doing the unexpected cascaded down through the organization. But even more important, every employee was inspired to do the unexpected in support of a colleague, family member, or others who they could support.

You will rarely find doing the unexpected in any book on leadership, business success, or even motivational lectures. When we do the unexpected, it has a much greater impact because it isn’t expected. It says we saw a need and addressed it without being asked. Often the need may not even be recognized as a need.

Doing the unexpected is inspirational. It created a network of stories to be shared and reshared. It creates real examples of personal values. And it provides models of how others can lead a purposeful life.

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“No matter what, expect the unexpected.  And whenever possible BE the unexpected.” –Lynda Barry (Cartoonist, Author, Teacher)

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