And I Thought the Title Made Me a Leader
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
I was elated, thrilled beyond belief. In my wildest dreams I hadn’t thought I’d ever be so lucky. I stared at the paper in front of me, grinning from ear to ear. All of those beautiful shapes, connected together — it was art. My eyes ran to the bottom of the page, then up again to the top where they rested, immersed in what they beheld. I felt so happy, so powerful, almost god like. I couldn’t wait to get going.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I sometimes do. Sorry about that. Let me roll back time a bit for you. It’ll make the story easier to understand.
In the early and mid 1990s, I spent a half a dozen years getting to know the industry I found myself in along with the profession I had sought out and secured. Being a safety and health professional in an electric utility was fascinating, and there was so much to learn. Huge hydro dams, long transmission lines snaking their way through the landscape, distribution lines draped like spaghetti across every town, meters and manholes, service drops and storm response. There was a ton to soak in, so I did my best to learn and bring some value to the company at the same time.
In the fall of 1996 I received a call from a smaller utility and ended up getting hired as the safety manager, an organizational step up from the last job and with another very big difference — I would have three employees reporting to me. I felt like I had finally grown up, become one of the inner circle. After a hurried relocation, I reported for duty and on day one was scheduled to meet employee number one (the others worked in remote offices so the introductions wouldn’t be immediate). Entering the cramped office that would soon be mine, I shook hands with the mild-mannered man and tried to break the ice with some small talk. As we chatted I noticed the strange look on his face. I couldn’t figure out what he was feeling but could tell he wasn’t happy.
We had plenty of business to discuss and dove into the details. The company had experienced two tragic fatal incidents within six weeks, and something (or things) had to change. I was listening, processing, totally focused on trying to work out a game plan when all of a sudden a smile broke out on his face. Confused, I looked at him and while I said nothing my face apparently screamed, “What’s going on!?”
He chuckled and relaxed. “You seem like an okay guy. Sorry, I didn’t know what to expect when they said you were coming here to take the job, just that you had some safety schooling. I’m just an electrician,” he offered, almost apologetically. Standing up, he walked behind me and closed the door. Great, I thought, the first day and I’ve already upset him. The door clicked shut. He turned to me and said with a bit of a grin, “Gotta show you this.” He pointed to a photocopied cartoon taped to the back of the door showing three men standing in an office. One says to the other “This is the new guy. Teach him everything you know then clean out your desk.” He looked at me and chuckled, although his look didn’t reflect mirth. He looked melancholy.
“I wanted the job, so you know,” he said. “But they told me I wasn’t qualified.” He stopped talking and showed no expression. “Anyway, you’re here now so that’s cool.” With that the conversation ended and he left the office.
Those initial hours and days had given me many things to think about. The new management job was supposed to catapult me to new heights, allowing me and my new strike force to become crusaders for the cause. Basically a safety SWAT team. I had pictured myself in a white cape, solving serious problems. And to be honest, I hadn’t pictured the employees as people with real world aspirations of their own that might differ from mine. I had imagined them as faceless robots ready and willing to do my bidding. And that was the first of many important lessons that guided my journey.
Myself included, the four people who formed our team were very different in experience, training, temperament and outlook, but we were all passionate about making things better. So despite our dissimilarities, we knuckled down and worked with the rest of the management team to drive the changes that had become evident and necessary. Dealing with the technical issues was rewarding, and there was no shortage of mountains to climb. Court cases to resolve. Regulatory submissions to construct. Procedural instructions to write and lots of employee training. But we got there. And it felt good.
About three years later, I was in the thick of things when I received a request by one of the senior directors to have a chat. About what I didn’t know, so I was of two minds. The devil on my shoulder winked and told me, “You’re getting fired!” Fortunately, the angelic alter ego was the voice of reason and calmly suggested that since I had good relationship with the director in question, the meeting might be a good thing. I opted to take that advice.
Ultimately it was job offer, more senior and with a potentially broader impact than the gig I had at the time. It was a fairly quick and smooth process to get to the final stage and I felt exhilarated about the outcome. I was now on the REAL trajectory to greatness. They handed me the organizational chart with my name at the top, manager of transmission and distribution operations, and now more than a quarter of the company workforce would report to me.
Next step: re-read the first paragraph of this column.
I’ll give you a few minutes. No hurry. I’ll wait.
With the new job in hand, I called a friend of mine who had expressed a strong interest in taking on the role I was leaving. He was also a safety professional schooled in the utility world and I figured he’d be a good fit. Exuding new found confidence, I let him know that he would be my replacement. He was ecstatic and we talked about the things he would do as a manager. I hung up, happy he would be taking on the job, and he in turn was already making plans to leave his current position.
Except that’s not what happened. Riding the wave of enthusiasm and thinking I owned the world, I had made the critical mistake of giving something that wasn’t mine to bestow. Within days it was announced that someone else, someone from the outside would be moving in as the new safety manager. Immediately upon hearing the news, my mind sprung back to the phone call of a few days ago. How would I break the news to my friend? What would I say? How would he take it?
After postponing the inevitable (and unenviable) next phone call, after agonizing about breaking what amounted to a promise, I slowly picked up the phone and dialed his number.
It didn’t go well. Not at all. To say he was disappointed would be a dramatic understatement. His confusion quickly turned to anger and where he saw a lost opportunity, I knew it was a lost friendship that was entirely my fault. Shame washed over me. However, ever the stalwart I did my best to put it behind me, but my confidence was been shaken. Okay, rookie mistake I told myself. Move on. I stuffed my feelings into a box, thinking they would disappear.
A few days into the first week of the new millennium, comforted that the Y2K threat had fizzled, I stood in front of a large group of people that I would now manage. They were mostly tradespeople, some with more years of experience than I had living. In an effort to set the stage, I uttered a few words of what I hoped were inspiration about what we would achieve as we moved into the next decade, but despite my yearning for accolades and applause, none were given. They were skeptical about me being the guy in charge. I wasn’t one of them and on several occasions over the next few years I was reminded of that fact, always to my chagrin.
I was probably two years into my tenure before I actually realized what the job was really all about, and as is often the case the lesson was delivered through a casual conversation with an older colleague who was much wiser than I. He was one of those understated guys, a senior and well-respected man who fell into the category of “been there, done that,” but in the best of ways. I was whining about how I spent most of my time dealing with people problems, grousing about it and offering up several examples. In his calm style he let me rant, then when the moment was right, chimed in.
“Keith, how many poles did you set this month?”
“Us? I don’t know, but quite a few.”
“No” he replied, “I mean you personally.”
“Me? Well, none.”
“How many miles of wire did you string? Meters changed? Phases balanced?”
“None,” I retorted, getting my back up. “What’s your point?”
“The point is that your job isn’t to do any of that. It’s to clear the decks so all of those guys that come to work every day can do that work. Your job is to get the problems out of their way so they can do their job.” He paused. “So if you’re fixing those problems, you’re doing the right thing. If you think you signed up for something different, you didn’t understand in the first place.”
Life’s hardest, best and most enduring lessons often feel like a punch in the gut. This was no different. As much as I tried to deny it, I knew he was right. I immediately harkened back to the day in my kitchen when I gazed upon the list of names and titles that would report to me, thinking I would be a king. Stroking my ego and blinding myself to reality. With wrenching in my guts, I understood in that moment what a leader of people really was, and how I had failed.
It was one of those truly life changing times. And finally, I listened to what the world was telling me.
In the years that have followed my career path has been varied. I’ve been given the honour multiple times to lead other teams; some number in the hundreds, others were very small. I’ve hired people, fired others and spent innumerable hours thinking how to make things better for the people and companies I’ve worked with. How I could best contribute to clearing the decks and removing obstacles so others could thrive. Some of my former colleagues think the world of me while others are… less charitable. I recognize now that management and leadership is a privilege, not an anchor. I won’t attempt to issue any edicts about how to be a better leader, as thousands who have gone before me have authored many volumes on the subject. I’ll merely share a few personal thoughts.
The leaders I admire are the ones who care about people and the companies they work for. Legitimately care by what they do. I’ve seen several over the years that have, like I did, let the power go to their head. If they learn the lessons quickly and change, they have generally been tremendously successful. Others let their egos drive their behavior, managing vindictively, and they tend to soon fall into oblivion as their compatriots see the damage they do the company and the relationships necessary to enable prosperity. I met one young foreman years ago who said, when asked why he was making what we all agreed was a dumb decision, “because I can”. He didn’t last. No one wants to be part of a losing team, and none like feeding an incompetent egomaniac.
These days, great leadership is needed more than ever. We are living with uncertainty and outright fear, and people want to know there is direction, order that flows out of the chaos. Benevolent guidance is needed at every level.
Will it be you who provides it? Your title doesn’t matter when it comes to leading. You may be a manager or engineer, a lineman or carpenter, an administrator or accountant, an executive or truck driver. Your sphere of influence may be larger or smaller than the person next to you, but your ability to bring order, calm, direction and comfort will come from within. No title can bequeath that capability and no person can take it away from you. So don’t be like I was. Shake off your ego, and courageously do what’s right.