The Sticky Note Leader

If you are looking for me, I’m back here. You see, the best leaders know that great leadership does not start from a position in front of someone. It starts in a supportive role, from behind the scenes. When your team works diligently to put their best foot forward, a great leader will stand behind them, encourage them to go farther, and motivate them to push the limits. That is why I am excited to introduce you to The Sticky Note Leader.

In order to understand the Sticky Note Leader, you first have to have a basic understanding of the history of the sticky note itself. Back in 1968, A scientist by the name of Dr. Spencer Silver at 3M was testing a new adhesive. His objective was to create a super strong substance and instead he got a seemingly worthless, low tack substance that you could pick up and move from place to place. Now, when you are expecting a product that has a super strong bond and instead you get something moveable and reusable… that is pretty much a failed attempt in the world of glue.

However, like most scientists, he was still proud of his creation and was determined to find a use for it. This re-positional product sat on the shelf for six years until a man by the name of Arthur Fry, a fellow scientist, needed an improved bookmark. Mr. Fry was so frustrated at Wednesday night choir practice that his bookmarks kept slipping out of his hymnal. He needed a sticky bookmark, but not too sticky. Hmmm…. The wheels started working and just like that, in one beautiful moment back in 1974 Arthur Fry knew what Dr. Silvers re-positional adhesive could be used for. After a little conversation with Dr. Silver himself and a short trial and error period for the product, the Post-It note was born. Today, more than 50 billion are created and sold each year. So, I guess you could safely call this invention a happy little accident.

As we all know, accidents are great when they happen in a science lab! Truly great leadership does not happen by accident. Great leadership requires daily effort, tremendous strength, and unwavering resilience. Anyone can be a boss but to be a leader you have to inspire, encourage, and empower others and you can do all of that with just a simple stack of sticky notes.

So, now that we have shared a brief history lesson, I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine. Her name, well, for all intents and purposes let’s just call her Ms. Nelson. Ms. Nelson was in her second-year teaching… third graders… grammar. Teaching an eight year old how to properly use the words their, there, and they’re … Eh, piece of cake!

Meanwhile, the only time she ever heard her co-workers use any of those forms was when they said, “there, there, there, it can’t be all that bad”

“This wasn’t supposed to be this hard,” Ms. Nelson said between sobs.

“There, there.” They said again.

Ms. Nelson knew that teaching was going to be a challenge. She just never imagined that it would be this difficult. Sadly, it was not the third graders that stressed her out, it was the principal.

“I just feel like he hates me. I am trying my best. Nothing I do ever seems good enough for him. He just doesn’t take the time to listen to me or understand me…. I know, I know… I’m here for the kids. They are what matters.”

Even her own pep talks weren’t enough to boost her spirits some days. Ms. Nelson was beyond miserable, every day.  At least she had her teammates, and Ms. Thompson, the assistant principal… she was amazing.

Unfortunately, Ms. Thompson was having a rough year herself. She spent most of her time on family leave with an ailing husband. Nevertheless, the days that she was present always added just a little bit more sunshine than the one before it.

So, one particular morning, after Ms. Nelson sent the kids down to gym class, as usual, she mustered up the courage to head down to the office to check her mailbox. She always had to psych herself up first in case there was an inevitable encounter with Principal Grumpster.

Instead, there was a peculiar note in her box. It was just a bright pink sticky note that said, “Thank you”. There wasn’t a name, or a who to, maybe it was placed in the wrong box. “Well, I don’t know what I did… but you’re welcome I guess.” Ms. Nelson shrugged it off, smiled a little, and went on about her day a bit more light-heartedly than when it first began.

A few days passed. Eventually, the meager “thank you” note faded from memory. Until one particular morning, Ms. Nelson sent the kids down to gym class as always and wandered down to the office in relatively good spirits. It was, after all, Friday! This time, her mailbox was overflowing, and right on top of the stack was a simple, bright pink sticky-note that said, “I appreciate all that you do.” Ms. Nelson grinned and walked back down to her classroom with an extra bounce in her step.

The following Monday Ms. Thompson wasn’t in and about a week after that the staff was called into the library for a brief announcement before school began. Ms. Thompson’s husband had passed away the day before. With heavy hearts, 42 teachers and 20 other staff members went on about their days, trying to drum up enough enthusiasm to continue to inspire 400 young minds.

About three weeks later Ms. Thompson returned to work with her head held high and she trudged onward, despite the bags under her eyes. Ms. Thompson knew she had a job to do when she walked through those doors each morning. Whether they were six years old or sixty years old, she was here for both the students and the teachers alike. Her strength was like a beacon to the rest of the staff.

Months rolled by, and the end of a very long school year was drawing near the end. Ms. Nelson still struggled to keep her head up, the days grew longer, and the principal’s temper grew shorter. Then one morning he met her at her classroom door with the policy manual tucked under his arm. Now, I will leave out the messy details but let’s just say that Ms. Nelson was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Channeling her inner Ms. Thompson, Ms. Nelson sucked up a few tears and pushed past the emotional pain so she could greet the students who would be bounding up the hallway from gym class any moment.

The next day she still carried the weight of the world on her shoulders and had a gloomy cloud hovering over her head. Nevertheless, she sucked in a breath and charged in head first, she got the kids counted and lined up at the door once more and they marched together down the hall towards the gym. She went across the hall to the office, she tipped her mail down out of the box, and right there on the top of the stack was another bright pink sticky note with the words, you are important.

In that moment, she could not contain the tears any longer. Thankfully you see, Ms. Thompson’s office door was ALWAYS open. She rushed into her office and shut the door. As she was pouring her heart and soul out, she noticed the stack of bright pink sticky notes on Ms. Thompson’s desk.

You see, despite the pain and suffering that Ms. Thompson experienced in her own life she still managed to come to work every day and inspire others. She did this with three valuable lessons that form the acronym ICE, Invest, Create, and Empower.

#1. Invest– Investing in others is not optional. When you invest in others you show them that you are interested in them, as a person. You learn about them, what they like, what they dislike. You take the time to listen. A great leader has the ability to wear their personal struggles like a jacket and hang those on the back of the chair when they walk in the door. Regardless of the bags under your eyes and the stress on your shoulders you never falter in your ability to invest in others, to reach out to people, to talk to them, and really hear their voices despite your own pain.

#2. Create– I want to encourage you to become a creator and not an enforcer. Ms. Thompson created an environment where people on her team wanted to be successful. She was specific with her needs, she helped give them the tools they needed, but then she stood back and trusted people to do their jobs. She made herself available if they had questions or just needed to be inspired. Ultimately, she guided them to make choices and learn on their own. She created an environment where people wanted to learn. An environment where people want to grow and reach their full potential. She created an environment where people want to thrive!


Finally, the last lesson we need to learn about great leadership is that we need to

Empower Others– Remind people that they have value. Remind people that you appreciate them. Remind people that they are important to you. When you take the initiative to lead from the back in a supportive role, with a simple stack of sticky notes, it does not matter if you are leading one person, twenty people, or a million. When you put someone else first, you build them up, you encourage their spirit and in turn, they will move mountains.

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