Leading with “I Stand by You” Creates Accountability

An extraordinary instance of accountable business leadership made the news over the past week. It came from an employee, not from someone highly placed in the organization, and it was in service of the powerful accountability commitment I call “I stand by you when all hell breaks loose.”

The accountable leadership moment came when Bonnie Kimball, a cafeteria worker at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in New Hampshire, learned that one of the students in her checkout line did not have enough money in his account to pay for his lunch that day. Ms. Kimball knew the student, knew the family, and believed the student when he told her that the money would be in his account soon. So instead of sending the student away hungry (never a great strategy for getting kids to learn), she gave him lunch without requiring him to pay right then. Then the story got interesting. A district manager of the private company contracted to provide food services to the high school happened to see Ms. Kimball give that student that free lunch. And promptly fired her!

But make no mistake. The moment she served that student his lunch, Ms. Kimball made the right decision. She was acting in accordance with the “I stand by you” commitment and was being accountable to the student she served. That commitment says, in essence, “When things go wrong, I’ve got your back.” (By the way, the student paid his bill the next day.)

The leadership of the company providing food service to that high school, however, was not quite as clear in its commitment to “I stand by you when all hell breaks loose.” It saw only a short-term violation of a very narrowly written policy that forbade handing out free lunches under any circumstances. And it stuck to its guns…until the story of the firing started to attract national notice. That leader was lacking in accountability.

At that point, the company pulled a 180-degree turn. They offered Ms. Kimball her job back, with back pay. She declined the offer, pointedly observing that the company was only making its offer so that the firm could retain its ongoing contract with the school district. That contract now appears to be in jeopardy, as the district has opened up the bidding process to other food service providers for future school years.

So, in this case, what happened was the employee showed true leadership. She stood by the student. She knew that the right thing to do is always the right thing to do. That is accountable leadership.

The formal company leadership should have supported her for stepping up and doing that, but they did not. To her credit, Ms. Kimball is not letting them off the hook. She knows she was right in the first place, and she is taking a stand. She is no letting weak company leadership sweep the problem under the rug. She was committed to standing by the student when all hell broke loose in his world and committed to doing what was right. That is being an accountable leader even without a title. Bravo!


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