Unfortunately, we have some strenuous things to get done and a pretty immediate time-frame to do them. With that compressed time-frame, it’s hard to invest any extra time being soft and friendly. But at the same time, how much ground will I really gain with my new team if I come off as a total jerk who only cares about metrics?
I always feel like its pretty easy to imagine what kind of leader you are until you’re in a situation where you actually need to be a leader. Then it’s really very tough to behave the way you set out to. You find that your integrity toward your very own ideals is tested over and over again in hundreds of small decisions about how to treat people, how to react to stress, how to delegate, and how to keep a balance between immediate needs and long-term goals.
Although I do believe I’m improving over time, I still find that I come up short. The week before last was a particularly strenuous one as I worked through the transition, got to know my team, and sorted through inherited challenges. I fell victim to anxiety a few nights and lay awake instead of getting much-needed rest. I frequently thought I was too busy to exercise and so replaced that source of sustained energy with the short bursts of frantic energy that come from caffeine and sugar. And I ran my nerves down enough to lose my temper twice. By Friday, I also managed to unlock the part of my brain that stores cuss words. Pretty much, I was a train-wreck.
On one particularly tough day, I was in a dark mood as I flew home. While in the air over Nevada, I pulled up Machiavelli’s book, The Prince. In it, he teaches how to control and manipulate people. He teaches that you should never worry about keeping promises or being moral. And you shouldn’t love the people you work with or want them to love you. “Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he warns, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
It had been such a long day, that this actually made sense. Maybe I needed to be more harsh. To “get things done” above all else. If I could be powerful instead of kind, I could get that next promotion—and maybe that’s what matters most.
I woke up the next day a little worried about the person I was becoming. If you’re reading Machiavelli and thinking, “that actually make sense,” you need to change jobs.
So I vowed this week to improve, at least a little. I would exercise. I would read at night. I would make time for the family. I would fulfill my church calling in scouts. I would keep some perspective at work. And I would control my #%*@ language.
On Tuesday, I had scheduled an all-day meeting in Oakland with three colleagues who specialize in compliance and education. We are a wonderful little team of four individuals, but I often feel that we aren’t as cohesive as we could be. We all get along and respect each other, but I still don’t know the team well and I feel like I frequently miscommunicate or mismanage our group. So last Sunday, I spent some time thinking about what we could possibly do together beyond the normal work at our all-day meeting. What could bind us better together and give us better perspective? What could help us get to know each other better as individuals and care more about each other?
One thing came to mind: Service.
I went to the website www.justserve.org, which is an amazing repository of service opportunities all over the country. I spent a long time combing through offerings in the Bay Area and also used those finds to branch out into other online searches.
I finally found the best of opportunities for my group: A small kitchen in the tenderloin district of San Francisco that makes 2,500 meals per day for local people in need. It specializes in serving the elderly and chronically ill residents of the area who cannot afford the specialty diets. Every evening, they invite volunteers to do prep work in the back kitchen and to share a meal together comprised of the same food that was served that day to their beneficiaries.
We met for several hours in our Oakland office, enjoyed each other’s company, and truly got a whole lot of important work done. Then at 4 PM, we dashed across the Bay Bridge toward the busy streets of San Francisco.
Intrigued and without other obvious options, we decided to go. Since it was less than an hour before closing time, tickets were just $7 each, and we had the museum virtually to ourselves. It’s a grand old building built just after the 1906 earthquake. It was originally the city’s main library, so its spacious halls are filled with doric columns, mediteraneanesque molded ceilings, and bookish inscriptions looming over doorways.
It turns out that 35 minutes is not enough time to see the Asian Art Museum. In fact, it wasn’t enough time to finish even one level. Fortunately, we didn’t try to rush. We lingered and relished just a moderate portion of the top floor. And in that very small total sample of the museum, we enjoyed exquisite sculptures, paintings, pottery, linens, and weaponry preserved from hundreds and even thousands of years ago.
I felt so very small. And with such very small problems.
How amazing it was to go from that sacred environment of contemplation to the busy prep kitchen a few blocks away. We all had a kind of peaceful joy that was hard to describe but easy to see.
And then we chopped onions. Boy did we chop onions. We chopped 100 pounds of onions. Five days later, my hands still smell like onions.
And we chopped eggplant. 160 pounds of eggplant. An unbelievable amount of that beautiful fruit or vegetable or squash or tofu or whatever eggplant is.
We stayed on our feet for three hours, after a full day of work, to chop onions and eggplant. And we were the happiest we’d ever been together. We laughed and sang and shared stories. We teased each other and joked about work. We left the kitchen like close friends.
We also took lots of beautiful pictures of us smiling and cleaning and chopping. But, since it was technically a work event, I can’t post any of them that show people. I can just show the eggplants and the guy who collected our onion choppings:
Then I thought about my new team. The team that doesn’t know me. The team I need to do great things with in a very short amount of time. I wondered how I might find an experience like this night to share with them. What might that do for us?
Today in church, we studied the teachings of Ezra T. Benson regarding leadership. He was uniquely qualified to speak on this, since he served both as an Apostle for the Mormon Church and also as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight Eisenhower during the same 12-year period. I can think of no other leader in contemporary history who has served simultaneously at such high and taxing levels in two such different institutions.
He had a much different message that what I’d read in The Prince:
- “A love of people is essential to leadership. Do you love those whom you work with?”
- “The time a leader spends in personal contact…is more productive than time spent in meetings and administrative duties.”
- “Asking produces better results than ordering—better feeling, too.”
- “Show appreciation when people carry out instructions well.”
- “When you are tempted to reprimand a fellow worker, don’t.”
- “People don’t like to be forced to do anything, even if it is for their own good. But people do respond to effective leadership.”
My experience in San Francisco reminded me of the truth about leadership. No one works for a tyrant. They placate them just as long as necessary and then escape from under them or murder them in their sleep.
So, while I don’t know exactly how the next few months will play out with my new team, I am committed to living up to my own ideals, even in my toughest moments. I’m committed to being a true leader.
And most of all, I’m grateful that, as I flirted with the Machiavelian devil at my shoulder, all it took was a little fine art and onion chopping to get me back on course.