The Leadership Journey – 6. Strong Livers

Many years back, when I first became a “leader”, I learned some interesting and strange lessons first hand. These are, like that famous book about what they don’t teach you at Harvard, lessons that can only be learned when you start to cut your teeth “in the real world”.

I had taken over the team as the boss in the September of 1988 – long, long, ago – and, we had recorded our highest ever sales. This record and memorable event had to be celebrated by a party. As the incoming boss, I was duly feted by my team in all forms of insincere flattery that evening. It was “my” achievement, I was told. The fact that sales crashed to an all-time low the next month, due to some crazy tricks by some members of the team, was also laid at my doorstep. That was another, very hard lesson that I learned, and will be the next thing I will write about.

That evening, however, our record sales was all that we thought about, and we celebrated. I was a bit embarrassed  to be getting all these words of congratulations, and I gently tried to tell the team that this was not my doing.

My team was a bunch of “old guys”, old and cynical. These were guys who loved to play up and show up the boss. You simply had to be one step ahead of them to get their respect, and simply being their boss did not get me their respect no matter how much they saluted me and call me “boss” that night.

So, I was given my drink – beer. The beer came. It arrived, carried by a sales rep who came along, dancing and bowing on his twinkly toes.

I took a sip, and almost gagged. Inside the glass, was a tall whisky, topped up with beer. What was I to do? Yell, and show how affronted I was by their gall, their cheek? Instinct, not cold logic, guided me. Something inside told me that they were out to get me drunk, and that night was to be my first test as a boss. If I could not stomach that drink, or if I slurred, wobbled on my feet or passed out cold, that would be the end of my prospects as a future leader.

Shit, I thought, how is it that I was never warned that this crap could happen to me? Luckily, my liver stood by my side that night. I hate whisky, but I drank all they gave me, smiling like a happy movie star. Over the course of the evening, as I realized that I was getting more and more drunk, I focussed more on my charming smile, and less on talking.

I really have no idea about how I got out that night. I just know that I walked out straight, got home, and crashed.

Yet, what I realized that day, was that it is critical to trust your instinct on what is needed in a situation. There are no rules that can guide you in every situation. You need to be able to read people.

And, to do so, you not only need a strong liver once in a way, to be perceptive, you really need to leave a big, fat ego at the door!

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