The Great Graduation Day Train Wreck
(This post goes along with Leadership Level 2, Team Asset.)
It was the Spring of 1988. I had just finished my first quarter of graduate school at The University of Georgia, and the school's graduation ceremony was a few days away. My supervisor asked me to play the piano along with the concert band that was scheduled to perform onstage. He then made the casual request for me to "check on things" on the stage that coming Saturday morning. When the day came I arrived there early and all seemed fine. I set up my own equipment and felt ready to go. I then noticed that the chairs and music stands had all been dropped off, but that no one was setting them up. Given the size of the school and that an entire campus crew had moved all this equipment, it struck me as odd that nothing else was happening. Mind you, this was in the days before cell phones, so I had no way of calling anyone from the stadium field out there. Anyway, I had assumed that "check on things" meant to look around to see if all the stuff had arrived. Boy, had it arrived. There was a lot of it, and someone had better come soon to set it up. You may already know where this is going.
It wasn't long before all the band students showed up, quickly trying to get into their seats with all their instruments in their hands. It can be awkward enough to get into your seat when things are set up, since your hands are full of your instrument, sheet music, etc. But here was a group of 40 or 50 people trying to do that all at once, and the chairs and stands weren't even in the right place yet. It looked like a scene from I Love Lucy or one of those classic Jerry Lewis movies. But it wouldn't be funny for long. As I stood there watching that chaotic scene unfold, wondering what would happen next, my supervisor had now arrived and was suddenly furious. In front of that nightmarish scene, he turned to me and loudly began scolding me for the way things were going at the moment.
Suddenly it dawned on me: I wasn't really there to play the piano. I was there to set up the stage. Problem was, that part of my job didn't get communicated very clearly. I was so upset and so unprepared for how to handle it, that I relayed to one of the students that I wasn't feeling well. Then, I simply left. It would take a conversation or two the next week with that supervisor in order to straighten things out. Well, we didn't exactly straighten things out, but at least I wasn't getting yelled at now. I was starting to get the hang of this person's leadership style, and it turned out to be a very educational season for me, as you might imagine.
I actually learned 2 very important leadership lessons that day, though one was bigger than the other. The smaller lesson I learned is this: There will be times in your own leadership when the mistakes are all your fault. The point isn't whether or not you really messed up. Maybe it really was your fault, but that can get sorted out later. For the here and now, and as far as everyone is concerned, you were the one who dropped the ball. This may not be the time or place to save your name and reputation. You'll just have to pull up your own bootstraps and go on. Oh, and you probably won't have the option of going home early as I did that day. You'll likely have to hang around and endure it, at least for awhile.
But the bigger lesson I want to share is this one: It may be up to you to figure out the leadership style of the person(s) you answer to. And if you simply wait around to learn this as problems arise, then you can expect more problems to arise. I encourage you to be very proactive in doing your homework here. Ask questions. Ask for clarification if necessary. Observe and take notes. Unfortunately, the leaders above you don't come with owners' manuals, so you'll have to create your own. Is this leadership reality unfair? Probably. But don't get hung up on this part. Purpose today to make your own leadership more effective by studying the landscape above your own area. It will be worth it for you and for the people who follow your leadership.
And if the bugler doesn’t sound a clear call, how will the soldiers know they are being called to battle?
–1 Corinthians 14:8 (NLT)