I’ve Got Underwear Older than You

“Wow, it has to be 120 degrees out here,” I thought to myself. In fact, my guess was probably not far off because, after all, it was Phoenix, Arizona in the middle of the summer and the cement dock that I worked on was an excellent insulator. Whatever the temperature was outside you could add an extra five to ten degrees to the temperature on the dock. My white milkman uniforms were always drenched by the end of the night, and you know what? I loved it. How could I not? A few weeks prior, my red target t-shirt was getting the same treatment whenever I had to go grab carts from the parking lot. I thought grabbing carts in Michigan winters was bad, but this, this… still, not as bad. I hated and still hate snow, so grabbing a few buggies under palm trees was a cakewalk, comparatively speaking; however, the work could still be exhausting and for $8.50 an hour it was almost criminal, so working at Con-way on the dock, I had no complaints. My goals were simple: to remain positive, learn everything I could and become a better leader. Easier said than done, but every day I gained a little bit more confidence in my role and my work. I was BECOMING a leader of women and men more than twice my age, so I thought. Some probably would not have agreed at that time.

Their opinions might have sounded something like this: who let this guy on the dock, kids out of college think they know everything and that generation is so lazy – he will quit within two weeks. Often times, their assessments were correct about other new hires, but they obviously did not know the newest and that quitting was not an option for me.

One of those hot summer evenings a gentleman that I was tasked with leading pulled alongside me on his forklift. His name was Mr. Chrysler. He must have seen the look of lost in the sauce on my face and was kind enough to check on my progress, well at least that’s what I thought. In actuality, he really just wanted to see how old I was. I replied, 23. He looked at me with kind gentle eyes and said “Young man, I have underwear older than you,” stomped his foot on the accelerator and sped off leaving a cloud of forklift exhaust fume in his wake. Instantly, thoughts of doubt crept into my head. Was I too young to lead this team? Was I skilled enough to instruct women and men who were as old enough to be my parents? Yes, yes I was, but it took some growing pains and it did not happen overnight. Eventually, I would accept three additional positions with increased responsibility in my organization, but the foundation was laid with my upcoming interactions with Mr. Chrysler and the rest of my team of drivers and dockworkers. Following are some steps that I took gain the respect and credibility with those I led:

I had to win the battle in my mind

  1. Effective leadership always starts with leading yourself. There is no another way around it. You have to get your thoughts, emotions and actions under control. Let’s start with my take on the foundational points (Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness and Relationship Management) from the book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0:
    1. Self-Awareness – Being aware of your triggers and what makes you tick, realizing how you react when things are going well vs. how you react when you are under stress.
    2. Self-Management – How do you deal with your emotions to best serve you when you’re leading others? This just isn’t about calming yourself down, but realizing that your emotions are neither good nor bad. They are just trying to tell you something and if utilized properly, emotions can work in your favor.

I had to win the battle in the minds of Mr. Chrysler and others

  1. Make no mistake, your team wants to be led. However, you are not leading if no one is following. True leadership is about vision and influence. It’s not about titles. We have all worked for a “boss” that we had absolutely no respect for. Did you work as hard for them, as say your peer, who is your buddy, who asked you to help him clean up a spill? The answer is probably no. Why? Relationship. That starts will awareness and sustains with management,.
    1. Social Awareness – Being aware of the emotions of your team, much like how you should be aware of your own emotions. This is referring to the members of your team individually and as a collective.
    2. Relationship Management – Managing the emotions, fears, questions, doubts, etc… of your team to achieve the best amicable solution. How do you do that? Some suggestions:
      1. Be Authentic
      2. Be Respectful
      3. Be Consistent
      4. Ask questions (A lot of questions, even if you know the answer)
        1. People want to feel like their input is important
      5. Listen, I mean really listen, don’t just let the environment vibrate your eardrums, stop what you are doing and LISTEN wholeheartedly!
      6. Do what you said you were going to do
      7. Follow-up!

Fail Forward

  1. You are going to make mistakes! When they happen, whatever you do, do not try to hide them! That is the quickest way to lose credibility. Younger leader, your team is going to expect you to make mistakes and they are waiting to see how you handle them. I have some suggestions:
    1. Ask for forgiveness, when applicable
    2. Ask for help, even if it is not needed
    3. Analyze the mistake and determine the root-cause
      1. Mistakes are a process.
    4. Learn from it
    5. Forget about it
      1. Don’t dwell on the situation. Don’t mourn over it. Fix it and keep moving forward.

Play to Win the Game

  1. Simply, this means to give it your all even when your all may not be required. You know how sometimes the better team plays to not lose instead of playing to win and they ended up losing anyway? That won’t work as a young leader from a motivational standpoint. Your team is an extension of you and they will personify your greatest and weakest leadership strengths. It is your job to coach them, to create a culture of respect and to hold them and yourself accountable to the standards that have been previously set. Once again, Coach, your team wants to be led.

Remain Positive

  1. Smile
    1. I am serious. Smiling puts others at ease. It will put you at ease. Force it if you have to, eventually, your thoughts will follow.
  2. Self-Talk
    1. Give yourself a pep talk every now and then. Remind yourself that you are trying. Remind yourself over all of the things that you have accomplished before. Remind yourself of WHO is in your corner. Self-talk is important. This goes back to winning the battle in your mind.
  3. Be Patient
    1. It won’t get easier, but you will become stronger – WITH TIME.
  4. Love the Process
    1. Don’t just trust it, but get up close and personal with it. Immerse yourself in it. Become dedicated to discomfort and know that it will be worth every single pain you have experienced.

I am almost positive Mr. Chrysler was laughing at me as he drove away. I would later find out that he was one of the senior drivers in Phoenix. He was firm in his ways but very down to earth. Also, Mr. Chrysler served as the class clown. That day he got the last laugh. However, towards the end of my time in Phoenix, Mr. Chrysler said something to me I would never forget, “Sheldon, look at him. He is the best supervisor in this building. He knows this operation like the back of his hand. But, he will be nothing more than a supervisor because he doesn’t have what you have. You know how to relate to people. Keep doing what you are doing and you will be fine.” I replied, “Thank you, Mr. Chrysler, and go buy some new underwear – that is nasty.” Mr. Chrysler laughed and drove his forklift into the sunset, never to be seen again, until the next night. It was quitting time.

So, I have a semi-optional challenge for your Leadership Development:

  1. Brainstorm and write down (Don’t erase anything) some things you can take to build more meaningful relationships with the teams you serve
  2. Pick 2 items, only 2, that you feel like would be most beneficial to your development
    1. Write down where you are and what you are currently doing
    2. Write down where you want to be and what do you think that preferred state looks like
    3. Write down what you think you need to do to fill that gap
  3. Focus on filling that gap for those 2 skills for 2 weeks
  4. Find a mentor in those areas to help gauge your progress and to bounce ideas off of
  5. Fail forward!
  6. Win the game!

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or leave a comment. I would love to hear about your progress.

Thanks for reading!



Leave a Reply