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Throughout my career I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of leadership. And as I made my way up through the ranks, I never forgot the valuable lessons my superiors taught me.
Years ago I worked for a company that built concept vehicles and hot rods for General Motors. I was hired as a logistics coordinator, in charge of 3 drivers whom I would send all over southern Michigan picking up or delivering auto parts, shop supplies, vehicles and occasionally hamburgers and hot dogs for company BBQs. My office was located in the shop tool crib where a cage and a counter divided the parts, tools and supplies from the rest of the shop.
Working in “The Crib” was probably the closest I’ll ever experience to being a bartender – minus the alcohol. I heard about everything and everyone: Fabricators, technicians, project managers, mold makers, clay modelers…if they needed even a paint stick they came to the tool crib for it. And when they did they always had a story about someone or a complaint of some sort. Unfortunately, I heard all of the gossip.
However, one particular story stands out from all of the rest.
There was an employee, an exception to the rest, who always came to the counter with a smile. He always asked for whatever he needed in the most respectful way, always said please and thank you. One of those people who didn’t forget what he learned in Kindergarten. One particular day he came to the counter and there was no doubt he wasn’t having the best day. I remember joking with him, trying to get him to crack a smile and nothing was working. He then began telling me about his wife being very sick and their insurance didn’t cover the entire costly procedure. They couldn’t afford it and didn’t know where they were going to find the money to get her the help that she needed. He left the crib with his supplies and I immediately started asking for donations from everyone who came to the crib that day. Though many people contributed, I was still hundreds of dollars short of what he needed by the end of the day.
The next day when I came into work there was a note on my desk – written by the owner of the company - asking me to see him in his office right away. I had a hundred different scenarios running in my head, wondering what my team may have forgotten to pick up or drop off the day before, or worse yet, that I was about to get handed my walking papers.
When I sat down, he started by telling me what a great job I’ve been doing (phew!), then proceeded to commend me on the campaigning I was doing for one of his best employees. He asked how much money I was able to raise. I told him and explained it wasn’t enough. Then he reached into his briefcase and pulled out his checkbook. He simply asked, “How much more do we need?”
My mouth dropped wide open. “We need close to $800,” I said.
Without saying another word he wrote the check, tore it out of his checkbook and handed it to me. He then looked me in the eyes and said, “If you ever hear of any of my guys out there that are in a situation like this again, just come to my office.”
I’m kind of a sensitive guy. I was wiping tears from my eyes while I folded the check and put in my pocket. When I walked out of his office I knew that as long as this man was my boss, I would work until I dropped if he needed me to.
I knew from then on what it meant to inspire, lead and motivate with character through compassion. He had my complete loyalty.
He taught me the human element of leadership.