Ever have one of those days where nothing goes right? There’s potential in times like this to take it out on members of your team by voicing disappointment, showing frustration, or worse, lashing out at them. Don’t do it. Trust me, if you do, you’ll quickly regret it; hard words are tough to get back. This is really the time to step back, check yourself and exercise some self-control. Several years ago I learned this lesson the hard way.
My job at the time was essentially managing a small-size city with a population of 25,000. I had 2,000 people working for me and we managed 2,200 lodging rooms, an airfield, two university campuses, 1,800 homes, several square miles of land and hundreds of additional support facilities. It was a large and rewarding assignment. My boss, who also lived and worked on our installation, was a “hand’s on” type. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed working for him and to this day have a tremendous amount of respect for him. One of his peculiarities was he liked things clean and therefore so did I.
Amidst the daily happenings of running our small town, my boss was hosting a group of dignitaries and our team had overall responsibility for transportation, lodging, conference set-up, meals, entertainment, and ensuring our guests’ needs were met.
Our overarching task was to guarantee a perfect visit to ensure our boss was put in the best light possible. This wasn’t about sucking up to the boss; this was about the boss’s credibility. The number one characteristic required to persuade and influence is credibility. Without it you’re dead in the water. Our boss was the host and he was trying to gain support for funding and buy-in on several initiatives that would ultimately benefit everyone in the organization. It was a critical visit and it was a critical mission for our team. Did I mention my boss liked things neat and orderly? Nothing got by him. The pressure was on.
I arrived at the conference site early in the morning to do a walk through inspection prior to the guests arriving for breakfast. Pretty easy for me to do since my house was right around the corner and it would only take a few minutes. Knowing my boss, it was important to get a quick eyes-on, plus it afforded me the opportunity to shake hands with the set-up crew and sincerely thank them for their hard work. Things looked tight, as expected. I trusted my team and I definitely had “more important” things to do, but my boss expected me to take a proactive approach, in all things, and this visit was high on his list. Little did I know that this visit would impact me for the rest of my life.
What happened next is embarrassing and even today it’s a hard story to tell. As I was leaving I ran into the conference site manager and stopped to talk with him. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a white piece of string lying on the conference center’s bordello red carpet. It was the kind of string used in industrial mops. To say it stuck out is an understatement, moreover it was right in the middle of the entry hallway. The janitor was standing right next to it. “Hey”, I asked him, “can you please pick that up?” I then resumed my conversation with the manager. About a minute later, I noticed the janitor hadn’t moved. I asked him again to pick it up, but probably didn’t use a please this time. I mean really, how hard was this? The janitor stared at me like I was an idiot. The manager was growing a bit uneasy, but since I was in between the manager and the string, he couldn’t get it himself. Nor did I think to do it; after all, I was the boss. After what seemed like an eternity to me, but in reality was probably only seconds, I told the janitor for the last time, “pick up the darn string!” I really wish I had said “darn” but I didn’t. The janitor stared at me like he’d seen a ghost, then strolled over to the string, picked it up and went on his way. The manager backed away from me and fixed his gaze on his shoes.
With business finished and everything looking great, I walked back home to get my car. I stopped in our kitchen to say hi to my wife MaryJo who naturally asked me how it went. I told her the place looked excellent and relayed the story about “the janitor”. Although it’s been almost a decade, I remember it like it was yesterday. She put some dishes she had in her hand down, folded her arms across her chest and leaned back on the counter. You know when this happens; you’re in big trouble. MaryJo looked very, very disappointed when she asked, “you yelled at Reggie?” I sheepishly replied, “If that’s his name, I guess so.” She paused a couple seconds and then responded, “You do know Reggie is mentally handicapped?”
Wow! Talk about feeling horrible. I didn’t know he was mentally handicapped and I didn’t even know his name. MaryJo did, but I didn’t, and I was supposed to be the leader of the organization.
Although I’ve been sharing it for years, it’s still a tough tale to tell. There are so many lessons here. Ultimately, great leaders have self-control, self-awareness and humility; clearly I wasn’t there yet.
I immediately went back over to the conference center to make amends and attempt to recoup what little self-respect I had left. I found Reggie, sincerely and profusely apologized, and asked him if there was any way I could make it up to him. He asked if he could turn on the sirens in my staff car. I told him that would be easy and brought him out front and put him in the driver’s seat of my car. I showed him the switches for the lights and the sirens and told him to go ahead and turn them on. I was so caught up in explaining everything to Reggie, my newfound best friend, that I didn’t notice my boss and his group of dignitaries approaching. To this day I swear the lights and siren only startled them a little.