Picture Credit: Many Wonderful Artists
The ex-army foreman bawled at the top of his voice, “CHRIS, WHERE ARE YOU? CLEAN THIS MESS UP!” He did this quite often, so that everyone in the yard could hear and sympathize with me, with people saying things like “How do you put up with that!”
I put up with it because between soul-destroying jobs and humiliating moments, I was learning a trade, and that was something to be grateful for in a recession-hit industrial town. And I probably gave the foreman good reason to be frustrated, for I was clearly not suited to the job I was doing.
But there was a more important reason why I stuck with it.
I didn’t think I could do any better.
Opportunities slowly came my way
After telling a senior manager I was planning to leave, I was offered a job in the office.
It was a remarkable turning point in my life.
I left manual work behind, returned to college and learned how to measure work, how to motivate people by paying them according to performance. I learned this management theory, that management theory, but nothing about how to build the inner strength and confidence upon which to lead people. I was still that young lad at heart, except now I wore a suit.
I went to some of the most difficult locations to increase performance and reduce costs
Inner city depots, experienced managers looking out for their own. Smoky rooms, tense negotiations, union men sticking up for their members. Fluorescent light tubes in dingy basement offices, raised voices, monosyllabic expletives. Sweaty palms, confrontation. Break for lunch in the local pub. Continue searching for compromise, something, anything, there must be one small thing we can agree on. More bad language, more cigarettes, more number crunching.
This was a different era, a different world.
And long before political correctness had reached our part of the world, the shop floor talk and banter could be quite brutal – I was not just out of my comfort zone, I was out of my depth.
But I stuck with it, as I always do.
Books changed things.
I found role models in the books I read. I was processing new information, being uplifted by their stories – Sir Ernest Shackleton, Nelson Mandela, Sir Richard Branson and Joseph Jaworski to name just a few – and pulling all the pieces together to realize there is a better way to lead. There is better way to live.
It was liberating and exciting for me.
I learned a style of leadership where serving others, not shouting at them, was a more effective way to work with people. And remarkable things are possible when you show perseverance, openness and an awareness of the possibilities that are all around.
There was hope, I thought. If a single snowflake can cause an avalanche¹, then I can make a difference. We can all make a difference.
And this world needs us to make a difference.
Life changed things even more.
I drew a mind map of all the pivotal moments in my life. I found it staggering to see how cluttered the page was. There were many times where I had had to step up to the mark, come out of my shell and take control for the sake of those with whom I shared my life.
These were rarely one-off isolated events, rather they were challenging periods that demanded more of me than I realised I had to give.
The first of those was a period in my twenties when my father’s health was deteriorating and my mom was struggling to cope. As their eldest child, I felt obliged to help them, I wanted to help them.
There was no time to hesitate, ponder or doubt myself.
There was stuff that needed to be done and I simply had to get on with it. They had two businesses between them. Mom was effectively Dad’s nurse. I was their driver, advisor, business consultant and of course loving son.
After he died, I had to help my mom through the challenges of being a relatively young widow.
A new chapter in my life had begun. And I was definitely no longer that young lad being shouted at in the yard.
I began to understand how we can live a more purposeful life by serving something other than ourselves. At its simplest level, it’s the difference between selfishness and generosity. But it’s also about realising that everyone and everything is connected. I started to look for connections between my life and the world around me. Researching my family history, for example, helped me to feel I was a continuation of the lives of my ancestors, helping to make all of their struggles, experiences, love and hope worthwhile. I felt part of something bigger, and with that new orientation, helping others, including those I worked with, was a natural way to live.
Put your ego to one side.
I began to see two sides to leadership, 1) to support people in getting stuff done (business as usual), 2) to make improvements (or change) to stay competitive.
The people you lead normally know the best way to get stuff done, they just need your support from time to time.
But implementing change is more difficult.
This is where leadership is really needed.
I became a facilitator of change, helping others to find their own solutions to the challenges they faced.
Gradually, my confidence grew, for it was rewarding to see others succeed in their endeavors.
A small village in the English countryside.
I was sat in an old Norman church, watching my daughter in a girl guides’ ceremony. In his sermon, the vicar quoted a sentence from the Holy Bible (Mark 9:35), ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’ (ESV). I sat on the wooden pew, looking at the ancient stone walls, thinking about this quote in the context of Servant Leadership. I felt very contented as I watched my daughter walk past, with my family at my side, friends and members of the community all around. Things were starting to make sense.
A few years later…
When I moved to Germany with my family, we threw ourselves into an adventure where we had no idea how things would work out.
We were a non-German speaking English family, trying to put our kids through a German school system. They had put their trust in us to lead them through this. The burden of responsibility weighed heavily on our shoulders.
How did we deal with this?
We opened ourselves up to being helped by others.
Helped by neighbours, by strangers, by retired teachers, by the parents of the kids’ friends.
We had to change from being proud and independent, to being open and vulnerable. Through this experience, I now see the value of having someone to talk to, the value coaching can bring to complex situations.
If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else. Booker T. Washington
Life has granted me many opportunities to get right out of my comfort zone. I certainly wouldn’t have wished for them all, but they are the things that have made me the person I am today.
The training and inspiration I’ve received over the years has been an important part of my development, but I’m quite sure that I would not have been able to find a training course in the whole world that could have taken my 18-year-old self and changed me into the person I am today. Only life could do that, with all its messy, complicated, pleasant and unpleasant challenges.
And if it is only life’s experiences that could have done this for me, then it is only further life experiences that will change me into the person I want to become. And as we can only make changes in the present moment², then I need to take the first step now, just one a small act of bravery – this is what I need to look for, every day.
Thank you for reading.
¹ a single snowflake can cause an avalanche – I don’t know whose quote this is, I will add it when I find out.
² we can only make changes in the present moment – not an exact quote, but I read something similar in the book by Deborah Rowland called Still Moving: How to lead mindful change.