I spent a great day on Thursday at the 11th annual Wharton Leadership conference.

Wharton professor Mike Useem is the master of teaching through metaphor and stories — and the theme of the day was Developing Leadership Talent: How Organizatons Prepare their Present and Future Leadership.

Speakers ranged from Harvard Business Review Managing Director Thomas Stewart, to Kirbyjon Caldwell, the Senior Pastor of Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church, to Tim O’Toole, the CEO of the London Underground.

The London Underground? Despite my trust in the Wharton team, my initial reaction to the roster was “huh”?

Of course, it all fell together, beautifully.

The most compelling theme that emerged for me was that leaders are not in control.

Chairman of outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison, Steve Harrison, described his humbling “aha” moment when a receptionist at one of his offices told him that she considered herself as the Director of First Impressions.

She explained that she felt that she could make a difference for the many outplacement clients who came into the office feeling stressed and not so positive.

Of course. (And in the outplacement business, the client you help in today’s job search might one day hire your firm.)

Leaders are not in control, but the way we behave will influence how people behave on a daily basis. Most important, when under pressure.

I was moved to tears by Tim O’Toole’s presentation on how the London Underground’s front line leaders — people who drive trains and direct customers — went down into tube tunnels, armed with flashlights, to help passengers after the 2005 bombings.

These everyday heroes had been trained and drilled on all manner of disasters. And because nobody knew what was happening in the first hour after the bombings, they were required to put their humanity, common sense and training into creating completely local efforts: each station’s employees had to work as a team. At the sites of the bombings, they had to deal with the injured. Elsewhere, people needed to be evacuated.

The way that employees behaved — without direction from senior management — affirmed every moment and dollar spent on training. In the moment that a leader makes a decision on training, the only impact is the bottom line. These decisions don’t matter until the training is really needed.

But it isn’t just training. Back to my ongoing love affair with Starbucks. Why does a young kid making $10 an hour care about how I like my coffee? Because he’s in an environment where his needs are valued. He’s got insurance, his manager and co-workers behave respectfully. If not, why remember my “grande Americano, no room, in her own cup”?

The context for action in 2005 was created long before the driver of a bombed bus chose not to walk away in shock, but to stay and evacuate people from his bus. Of course this man’s values were created by his family, his faith, himself, his community. But his workplace is part of his community. Leadership attracted and trained this amazing guy. Most important, they retained him.

O’Toole described management’s small gestures of appreciation as the crisis cleared. They sent food baskets into the stations, they gave employees 2 movie tickets, with a note encouraging them to take a break with their spouses. “Thanks, Tim!”

2 movie tickets. O’Toole commented that of course his employees can buy their own movie tickets. But small acts of appreciation build on themselves: sometime it is the thought that counts.

In a large firm, you can count on culture, formal training, and shared values to help people make the millions of micro-decisions they make during the course of business.

In a small firm, you don’t have this infrastructure. Your behavior, words and actions — large and small — loom much larger.

If the person who greets your customers is not behaving like the Director of Customer Impressions, take a good look in the mirror.

(There was another message that came through loud and clear, which I won’t comment on — today at least. Between Sarbanes-Oxley and our isolationist and punitive behavior towards immigrants, we are killing the creativity and entrepreneurial energy that make America relevant to the world economy. And I would argue that the health care problem adds to this, too. But, as usual, I digress.)

I also met blogger Valeria Maltoni, whose Conversation Agent I just recently came across. Valeria writes about conference speaker Dana Gioia, the poet-businessman who leads the National Endowment for the Arts.