As baby boomers, some of what makes us tick is what we picked up along the way. Sometimes pretty early along the way. That’s how it is for communications specialist Larry Checco of Silver Spring, Maryland. In this excerpt from his book — AHA MOMENTS IN BRAND MANAGEMENT:Commonsense Insights to a Stronger, Healthier Brand — he tells a true story about an early lesson in leadership in a shipping yard in Western Australia, when he was a young man working his way around the world.
“It needs to be unloaded by the end of the day!”
We all looked at each other, seven yard hands working for a Western Australia transport company. The assignment was to unload what seemed like an endless boxcar filled with 40-pound sacks of flour. I overheard one of my co-workers mumble, “He must be joking!”
It was one of those dog days of summer, with the temperature and humidity both in the high 90s. We all knew that inside the 50-foot long metal boxcar the temperature would be well over 120 miserable, sweaty degrees. No one even dared to venture a guess on how many sacks of flour the boxcar contained.
“All right, gentlemen, we’re going to do this in bucket-brigade fashion,” said, Mac, our new gang boss, a ruddy-faced, barrel-chested Scot who none of us knew very well.
He stood beside us
As we grumbled and slowly lined up to form our bucket brigade, Mac did an astonishing thing for a yard boss. Instead of assigning himself to some sanitized, rah-rah leadership role in the shade, he took off his shirt, climbed into the super-heated boxcar and started passing sacks of flour to the next man in line. He never belittled any of us for our initial grumbling. He recognized that what we were all about to do was going to be hard work.
He took care of us
Over the next several hours Mac rotated us so that no one was ever in the super-heated boxcar for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Mac also made sure we took several breaks and drank plenty of water so we wouldn’t get dehydrated, which conveyed to us the message that he was looking after our best interests.
There was no coaxing, cajoling or bullying on Mac’s part; he simply set an expectation, defined our goal clearly right from the start, and worked alongside us the entire time to get the job done.
He made it fun
In fact, Mac’s energy, quick wit and humor made us all laugh and joke. We even broke into song—despite the fact that flour seeping from some of the burlap sacks and mixing with the perspiration on our shirtless bodies was turning us into white, ghoulish-looking creatures. But we simply considered it part of the job. In fact, our pasty appearance served to bond us together, identified us as a unit—especially during breaks, when we mingled with those who were not assigned to our gang.
He made us a team
Intentionally or not, Mac had effectively transported us psychologically from what we considered our daily routine task of mindless lifting and toting—all part of an ordinary day’s work for a minimum-wage yard hand—to something that resembled a meaningful endeavor.
Soon we were no longer passing sacks of flour to each other—but tossing them. We were no longer a pack of disgruntled workers, but rather a team working together on a mission, toward a goal.
He rewarded us
We unloaded that boxcar in record time. After we had accomplished our goal, Mac thanked us and bought us soft drinks to quench our thirst as each of us sat around sharing stories of the day and laughing.
I doubt any of our fellow yard hands worked as hard as we did that day, certainly none looked as ghastly—and I dare say, none felt as engaged or had the same sense of ownership in their work as we did.
Despite what others might think of as low-paying menial labor, I went to sleep that night with a profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment—and with a lesson in leadership that I remember to this day, more than 40 years later.
The fact is that none of us exist in a vacuum. We are acted upon by—and react to—the environments in which we live, play and work. These environments may either be conducive to our living, playing and working our best—or not.
It follows therefore that one of the responsibilities of a good leader is to ensure that the people he or she leads are responding to the best possible environments that they, as leaders, can create, a lesson many in leadership positions still need to learn.