Issue Number 37: Leadership and the Rule of Gerald

I paid my way through college by working in the Postal Service. There were perhaps a dozen of us college students driving trucks and sorting mail, and for the most part we got along very well with the career Postal Service employees.

There was one person who occasionally served as a substitute supervisor who just did not like us, or anyone else for that matter. On the few occasions when he was in charge, he was either on the prowl for someone doing something wrong so he could chew them out, or sitting on his desk as if it were a perch and glaring at us. Let’s call him Gerald since that is not his name.

Gerald was in charge one day and all of us were being especially careful. We were on break when the telephone rang on his desk. Nobody wanted to answer the phone because it was an outside line, and that meant there was a call from a probably unhappy customer. We college students, knowing less about the Postal Service than anyone else and being less able to help customers, stayed particularly far away from it.

Gerald looked straight at me and said: “Taylor – answer the phone.” I told him I would rather not and he smiled and ordered me to answer it anyway. Everyone else began drifting away, knowing what was coming.

The customer asked me a question. I had no clue what the answer was and asked Gerald, who gave me the wrong answer. The customer became a little upset and asked me another question. I asked Gerald, who gave me another wrong answer. The customer, really annoyed now, asked another question. When I relayed it to Gerald he grabbed the phone from my hand and answered the customer’s question, apologizing for my incompetence.

Then he turned on me and chewed me out in front of the entire crew. I was so young and naïve I really did not know what was happening, so I just stood there. Then he strutted away, laughing.

One of the more experienced employees came over, put an arm around my shoulder and said: “Don’t pay any attention to him, son. He’s just a weak little man trying to look strong, and he’s not fooling anyone.”

Gerald did not act like he learned anything from that incident, but I did. I learned the damage that could be done by constantly looking for people doing something wrong, and I promised myself if I was ever in a leadership position I would look for people doing something right.

I followed this principle throughout my career. I have tried to help people who are doing something wrong, but I have focused on people who are doing something right. It has not only been a common-sense way of leading, it has been a continual source of inspiration.

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