What makes a good leader? A story, about Mr.T. (no, not that one...)

I started my day today calling Mr.T. I called him, because it was his birthday, and because I love him. I never would have thought that I will write these lines. Especially not after that early morning, on that grey autumn day, five or so years ago.

It was only a couple of months, that I got my first serious leadership position. I had to lead a group of very well connected (however slightly rebel) individuals. Since the group cohesion was great, I took my seat in the leader’s chair, and business went on as usual. Everyone was doing their thing, and I came to the wise conclusion, that leadership was not that big of a deal. I should have known better, that this will not stay like this…

So there’s that one grey autumn morning when, in a very uncharacteristic way for me, I was walking down the parking lot towards my car at 7AM. There was that feeling that I’m not quite awake yet, but also not in sleep mode, and I’m trying to urge evolution, to give humans another hand. I had my coffee in one hand and the other one was franticly scouting the bottom of my purse, in hope of finding something similar to my car keys, when my phone rang. And this is where a third hand would come in very handy. I put my coffee cup on my car, and with an increased sense of urgency, now with both hands, I was trying to find my phone in my seemingly bottomless bag. And the phone just kept ringing. The feeling of euphoria that I felt when finding my phone, was quickly slapped out of me when I heard the tone of voice on the other end of the line. It was a very pissed Mr.T, letting me know, that his access to company ground has been revoked…

Having survived the emotional tsunami, I just sat in my car and stared out the window. One coffee was definitely not enough for this conversation! After I was done with the “this is what you get for answering the phone at 7AM” self-flagellation, I realised, that something needed to be done. I sent Mr.T home and I went on my way, to investigate what happened.

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© 2022 Albert Erika. All rights reserved.

But before I get to the point, I have to rewind a bit and tell you more about Mr.T and why this was such a huge trauma for me. So Mr.T was a true professional, just on the verge of retirement. He was a toolmaker all his life, and you could probably wake him up at 3AM (if he wasn’t already up) and he would have a solution to your technical problem in milliseconds. He was highly valued in our profession. And above all, he was (almost) always smiling, in a good mood and everyone simply loved his charm.

I could say I was curious what happened to make him so upset, but I wasn’t… I kept hoping that by some miracle it would all go away and I wouldn’t have to deal with it. But things are never that easy, right?

I spent my whole day trying to figure out who did what, when and where, that got us here. I found out, that it was an alleged or actual workplace safety incident that led us to this standoff. Whether it was alleged or actual is almost irrelevant in this case, because occupational safety is a subject that requires proper caution. I could fully understand both parties’ positions, and I could imagine myself in both roles doing the same. I had no idea what to do, but I was getting more and more convinced that we would have to look each other in the eye sooner or later. To be on the safe side, I made an appointment for the next morning, so that we could all sit at the same table and give our own views. I called Mr.T and told him that we had an appointment in the morning, so let’s try to discuss beforehand.

A person is a person because he recognises others as a person.

As i sat in my car that morning, i still had no idea what I should do. I just drove off, somehow trusting faith. I met Mr.T at a nearby café. Before going in, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst. Considering the way our conversation ended the day before, I wasn’t expecting a great deal of good. But when I saw him, all my fears disappeared. He was sitting at the table wearing a suit, clasping the paper coffee cup in both his hands. I realised it was no better for him than it was for me. I was amazed at the humility and respect I saw in him. Again, he defended his position, that he made his decision based on his professional experience and did not want to inconvenience anyone. I understood. We agreed to go forward with the same humility and respect, this time together.

Entering the management office, we saw the same thing. There, too, sits a man just like us, doing the best he can. We discussed where communication had gone wrong, how we could have done things differently and how to act next time in such a situation. We were able to part ways without having any bad feelings.

What was needed to resolve the situation? Humanity.

I am currently reading the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s common diary “The book of joy”. In it, they come to the conclusion several times, that the source of most our problem is, that we are too focused on ourselves. The more we stress on our problems, and the more we only see how this affects us, without considering others, the bigger and heavier they become. But if we learn to look outside and consider others, we realise, that these issues are usually not that severe.

Because what exactly happened here? We felt, that our basic needs were not met. Mr.T felt that his expertise was ignored. I found, that my newly discovered leadership self-esteem has been damaged. But that wasn’t actually the case. In most of these cases, it is only our fears, that create these situations of conflict and stress. The fear, that we cannot meet our psychological needs. And if we don’t yet know, how to deal with these fears, one thing is for sure:

if we approach the other person with humanity, and trust that they too are doing their best, we can’t do much harm. We are imperfect, but we are trying. Even as leaders.

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