Guts, Empathy & Leadership Character: A Tribute to Antionette Tuff

Antoinette-TuffA version of this post was read at the 2013 Turknett Leadership Character Awards luncheon:

The Turknett Leadership Character Awards were created in 2003, as a way of honoring, and reinforcing character in business after the multiple scandals – Enron, WorldCom, etc – the year before. We knew many, many good and decent people in business, and wanted to lift them up … and now this is the tenth annual Awards celebration.

The model of character in leadership on which the Awards are based was developed in 1995, close to 20 years ago now.

In all that time, though, I’ve never seen a better example of leadership character than the one we all saw right here in Atlanta last month. I remember the sinking feeling I felt the morning of August 20th hearing that there was a gunman with an AK-47 in a school. It is still hard for me to believe that one bookkeeper, alone with that troubled gunman, was able to talk him into surrendering to the police.

Antionette Tuff is a poster child for the Leadership Character Model. First, she did not say what I would have said, which is “Oh my Gosh, where are the police? This is not my job.” She took it on. And if leadership is defined as getting people over whom you have NO authority to move with you toward a goal, I defy you to find a better leader. I have listened to the complete 911 tape at least four times. It took extreme courage to decide to engage with the gunman that day, but she had more than courage.

She balanced courage and toughness with empathy and respect better than anyone I have ever known – she saw the humanity in that troubled young man, and she shared her own struggles. She was loving enough, and forceful enough, and honest enough that she got him to put down his weapons and lie down on the floor as the police came in.

You won’t find a better lesson in leadership than you’ll find in that tape. Ms. Tuff said that she used “weapons of the spirit,” – she was “Tuff” as nails – the responsibility side of the scale, saint-like in her compassion – the respect side of the scale, and so honest it will break your heart. We are dedicating the Awards ceremony this year to Antionette Tuff, and to the schoolchildren and police officers whose lives were saved that day.

— Lyn Turknett, President, Turknett Leadership Group

To listen to the Antionette Tuff 911-call, click here. To learn more about the Turknett Leadership Character Model, click here.

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