In the midst of a horrendous storm in Washington, DC, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, laden with ice and snow, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River after taking off from National Airport. I can remember being glued to the television, watching live coverage of the recovery efforts. Passengers were floating in the bone-chilling waters, struggling to survive.
Priscilla Tirado was one of those passengers and though a helicopter line was dropped to her, she couldn’t hold on as she succumbed to freezing waters. Lenny Skutnik, an employee in the Congressional Budget Office, routinely drove over that bridge every day. On this day, he stopped at the scene of the crash and watched in horror along with hundreds of other onlookers. When he saw Priscilla Tirado’s struggle, he impulsively dove into the ice-clogged river and pulled her to shore. He didn’t think about it, he just knew a human life was about to be lost and he was compelled to save it. It was the right thing to do.
Two weeks later, President Ronald Regan gave his State of the Union address to our nation. As always, first lady Nancy Reagan sat in the balcony, this time with Lenny Skutnik by her side. The President pointed everyone’s attention to the balcony and spoke about the heroic act. He used this as an example of what was right with America and that our best days were ahead. It was the beginning of a presidential tradition and every year since, during the State of the Union address, there is a “person in the balcony” who is singled out and recognized for their actions.
Ordinary people perform extraordinary acts every day. We see it here in our firm – team members putting others first because it is the right thing to do. It may be going above and beyond for a client, it may be an act of community service, or it may be mentoring younger staff to help them achieve their goals. As leaders, we need to have individuals in the balcony and to recognize them for doing the right thing. These individuals don’t do the right thing for glory or recognition, but because they share common values and are fostering a culture from which we all benefit. We need to let them know they are recognized and their acts are appreciated.
We should always seize the opportunity at every meeting, gathering or event to be pointing to someone in the balcony. Who will be sitting in your balcony the next time you have a meeting?