Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Leadership 101

     The subtlety was lost on me at the time. While it’s not a happy memory, many years have passed and now I appreciate the delicate touch.
     My husband had died; the circumstances were tragic. My neighbor and friend, who’d been by my side the week since, advised me to seek legal representation, a path I was reluctant to walk. Though furious and grief-stricken, I was convinced at that point that those in charge would do the right thing.  They’d answer my questions; they’d step up to the plate.
     My friend was kind yet firm. “You need an attorney,” she gently insisted. “You have issues.”
     In the end, she proved correct. There was every need for an attorney. The assumption that those in charge will “do the right thing” can be all too misguided.
     As I write this, I again have issues. Nothing of that awful nature, for sure.  Still, I’m angry and saddened: recently, two hardworking, honest, decent men I care for deeply have been ousted from long-held positions. Devoted to the organizations. Risen through the ranks. Many faithful years on the job. Decades in one case.  Both let go, essentially, for becoming inconvenient to those wielding the clipboard and the whistle.
     Some people should never be allowed to get their hands on the clipboard and the whistle.
     I’ve seen a few hardships in this life. Occasionally I have felt at others’ mercy. Even so, I’m always amazed at the ease with which those with the clout to do so make unilateral decisions that set off seismic shockwaves in the lives of others. Business decisions for the most part, where money and power are key.  “It’s not personal,” says Michael Corleone as he contemplates assassination. “It’s strictly business.”
     A man or woman behind a desk lowers a boom – without consultation, frequently without warning --that forever, completely changes the life of the one sitting on the other side.
     Astonishing. Nonetheless, it happens every day.
     Like The Godfather’s Corleone family, my mother was Sicilian, and I am my mother’s daughter. We’re not an especially stoic people. Suffice it to say that my vocabulary has become more colorful over the last weeks. Mild revenge fantasies play in my head.
     This isn’t about combating a particular injustice in the workplace. We all know it exists; in a sense, it is indeed nothing personal. There’s plenty of indifference, callousness, and greed to go around these days.  Extraordinary people get tossed to the curb regularly by agenda-setters with the authority to lead but not the wisdom or vision to do so well.  Miquel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, reminds us that, “What others say and do is a projection of their own reality.”
     In essence, they know not what they do.
      I tend to believe, though, that a man who is miserable to one human being will be miserable to another, and in the end will find that misery heaped back upon himself.
     Karma’s a bitch, as they say.
     But what do we do with the anger and self-doubt that come from mistreatment? What do we teach our children in the wake?
     I am well acquainted with anger. I’ve had my reasons. Certain injustices ought not be left uncontested. In the past, a low-smoldering ire fueled my writing.
     However, immediate satisfaction aside, we are rarely proud of what’s enacted under the influence of rage. Moreover, anger is a debilitating emotion to harbor: “As vinegar corrodes the vessel that contains it,” St. Augustine wrote, “anger corrodes the heart if left to fester too long.”
   For the most part, anger is fear in disguise. We have lost control of a situation at the hands of someone else; a framework or a constant we have relied upon is suddenly gone. We become panicked, immobilized.
     In these recent instances, vital frameworks have been unmoored: Livelihoods. Careers.  Like most of us, these men had sensible plans for their salaries. Nobody was touring Europe or looking into leasing an Audi R8.
     Last week over dinner, I discussed the employment woes with my son and daughter-in-law, who, like all of our children, work long hours. My son, at 25, has already seen layoffs and shutdowns.  It must be moderately terrifying to them, as a young couple starting out together, seeing that hard work and loyalty are not necessarily the reliable building blocks of a secure future, as we ourselves once believed they were.
     How do we carry on, when faced with profound setbacks in our careers, with wrongs that simply can’t be righted? What example do we set for our children? For as Albert Schweitzer simply asserted, “Example is leadership.”
    We catch our breath; we regroup; we learn. We straighten our backs. We resolve to put one foot in front of the other. We chart new and, with a little luck, even more rewarding paths.  Living well is truly the best revenge.
     Then through it all, we continue to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.
     That last ideal is especially fine. It’s been bandied about for quite some time. If enough of us seek to uphold it, eventually it might catch on.


Many thanks to publisher Justin Lavely for permission to post this column, which will appear in the May 2013 issue of The North Star Monthly.


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  2. What did your son and daughter-in-law have to say? The future is their generation's to make now. Are they finding ways to cope as the world gets harder and harder?