Have you ever experienced a small act of leadership that made a surprisingly big impact? I’m talking about the humble, everyday actions of a leader – at any level – that can make a much bigger difference to a business than the ‘text book’ qualities we often hear called out. Can those small actions be taught? Are they simply a fluke? When does leadership with a little ‘l’ become a big ‘L’?

At mwah. we love questions of leadership – what it is, how to grow it, how to do it better – these things occupy our minds on a daily basis. I also love surprises*, and sometimes the two go hand in hand. So it was a few weeks ago, when I came across a brilliant act of leadership one might think was a little ‘l’. But I’m calling it. It was a big ‘L’. And here’s why.

A story of leadership in a small store 

There we are at Callala Beach, a sleepy coastal hamlet on a late January long weekend. Family and friends, sunshine, good books, in front of us an endless blue ocean alive with fish. The clipping speed of dolphins at play in direct contrast to my ‘sleeping fur seal’ on the beach.

What eventually moves me is the promise of food. (Motivation is power.) We mosey over to the local IGA. It’s mid-afternoon and the air is hot, listless. We wander through the store and fill our basket – pizza bases, fresh chillies, pineapple (oh yes). Then that thing happens where, just when you think you’re home and hosed, a queue of people materialises right in front of you at the till. What the? Meh, we’re already in holiday mode – we resign ourselves to the wait.

OK I hear what you’re saying. Move the story along, nothing to see here, right.

Wrong. As it happens.

The guy packing shelves in aisle three (we must’ve walked past him) has parked his trolley down the back and is opening up the second till. The lady topping up flower pots out the front has come inside and is opening up the third. No shrill announcement over the PA. It simply happens. And just like that we’re at the front of the queue.

The young woman serving us at register one is a newbie (we empathise – we’ve all been there in one job or other). Too new to have mastered the art of knowing on exactly which plane the bar code is printed, and at which angle each different item scans best. How to deftly smooth out crinkly barcodes in one flourish. How to pick your russets from your kipflers on the fly. Sweat prickles her brow and her insecurity is palpable.

My friend and I pretend not to notice, we make light and breezy conversation between ourselves. Then I see a colleague appear by the cashier’s side. He suggests a couple of ways she might do things more easily, in a different sequence, that will quicken her pace. Shows her a few shortcuts on the till.

He goes about it quietly, unobtrusively, respectfully.

She’s receptive, and then she’s grateful, upskilled – and visibly empowered. She smiles and makes eye contact with us as she gives us our shopping bag.

And we’re out of there in two minutes – not ten.

‘Imagine’, says my friend as we walk away, ‘if everyone in my business would lead like that. The impact would be game changing.’

The secret sauce 

We leave with a really positive experience of a business. Simple but effective leadership has directly impacted both us – the customers – and a new employee – in great ways.

The IGA might have 10, maybe 15 employees – but my friend leads a company of thousands. So what’s the humble store’s secret sauce? And can he buy some? In bulk?

Despite how things appeared in store that day, moments like this don’t just happen. Employers need to have ways of recruiting that enable them to identify people with the right attributes to lead like this, in human ways, or, it must have an operating culture that enables and empowers everyone to be human. For best results you need both.

Leaders who do this really well are able to identify where to direct their energy for the best impact, and prioritise those on-the-spot coaching moments ahead of other ‘more important’ but less impactful activities. As they help their colleagues grow from ‘newbies’ to technically confident and experienced, the capacity of their people and teams to do the human stuff naturally expands.

And when this becomes the way people work together – those human behaviours are self-perpetuating – so they just happen. Like it did at the supermarket.

But back to my friend and his thousands of staff. Is the secret sauce replicable in much larger, more complex teams?

I think it goes back to frontline leaders identifying where they can get high impact from small actions – like the 1:1 coaching moments – and prioritising those actions. Brick by brick, bringing in the right people (by recognising what you need and how to attract them) and building enabling cultures, where leaders are empowered to lead in human-centric ways.

There will always be aspects of customer service that are anomalies, where the relative importance of the technical side outweighs the impact of a more human approach. (A brain surgeon who can cure you but has zero interpersonal ability comes to mind. You’d take their skill over their bedside manner any day.) But they’re the exception, not the norm. And there are ways to build enabling cultures around those exceptions.

So yes, there is a secret sauce – but you can’t just buy it off the shelf – you’ve got to make your own.

*my birthday is in April. Just sayin’.

Article written by Rosie Cartwright