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To You Who Will Follow

You know who you are.

Starting as a child you sat for those standardized tests and you took them well. Very well, indeed. In high school and college you excelled, impressing the intellects and powerbrokers with your brash grasp of facts and your sharp tongue. You used all the right words at all the right times. And you rose fast out of school and into a newly ordered world, honed as you were by the algorithmic tutoring of the video games and programmed electronics on which you were suckled very nearly from the day you were born.

Then one day - let’s call it a day not too long ago - you arrived in a place where you were in charge of men and women, some nearly twice your age, all of them eagerly anticipating your reputation and your brilliance. And they looked at you and they waited. And after not too long they knew one thing that you did not. They knew that as smart as you were you had no idea what you were doing and they wondered how, in God’s name, you got to be where you are today.

Put simply, you had not yet learned that the truest measure of intelligence is humility. You just cannot understand how anything you think is right can ever be wrong. Nor can you ever believe that any idea you have ever had might ever have been had by anyone one else but you. And all that would be okay in a well-ordered world where, in those arrogant moments of youth, we are handed enough rope to hang ourselves with the surprising tensile strength of our over-wound egos.

The problem is that somehow you have made it to a place where you have been given enough rope not only to hang yourself but to loop it twice around the neck of everyone else who works with you. You, yes you, you brash young thing. You are enthusiastically throwing the rope attached to our necks over the lights in the conference room, about to kick out the chairs from under all of us. Only now, because the world values your vanity and youth over any wisdom or common sense, when you strangle us all there is no one in the room who has the power to stop you before you turn out the lights.

Yes, I am afraid. But I’m also laughing my head off. The conversations you have with us and the language you use to advance your career are a study in American comedy. Only in America, with our low self esteem subconsciously buried under our self importance, would you be able to use words and ideas that sound real, but mean less than nothing at all.

. . . Going forward, if we can find the bandwidth and acquire the resources we’ll be able to drill down to a set of deliverables that sweat our assets and create enough synergy for an internal paradigm shift. Let’s not forget that we need to carpet bomb the competition and wow our customers while ramping investment and motivating stakeholders. The bottom line here is to give the team a heads up that we’re about to open the kimono and create some visibility in order to think outside the box and put ourselves in the right mindset to push the envelope and get in the ballpark so we can hit a home run. My goal is to empower each of you to fill the strategic gaps and facilitate an enterprise wide strategic fit . . .

We nod our heads as if we understand. Then we go outside and laugh until our eyes fill with tears of pity. Even if we have no idea what you’re talking about we still know what you need. You need us to save you.

Now I ‘m not saying I’m better than you. Nor will you ever hear me say that I’m wiser than you because I’m older. The truth is that because we’re all human and imperfect there’s really not all that much difference between us. Except for this. Before I open my mouth, I open my heart.

It may surprise you to learn that the people sitting around you in that conference room aren’t motivated by how smart you are; they’re motivated by how much you care. Charles over there may spend a little too much time slapping up sticky notes to remind himself of things he should be able to remember, but he’s the most honest man alive and if you start to think about him as a person, he might just put up a sticky note to remind him to do something that will make you look like a genius. Stephanie who just sat down with her second bagel of the morning can be a bitch sometimes, but just throw a compliment her way once in a while and she’ll stay at her desk all weekend living on food left behind in the office refrigerator just so she can get you a promotion. And, Michele and Kevin over in the corner, well let’s just say that no matter how much Red Bull they drink they run on human kindness, and when you stop talking long enough to listen to their point of view you might find out that they have an idea or two that could save your job. Yes, caring about us before you tell us what you think might make you feel a little dumb at first, but it could be the smartest thing you ever did.

The truth is we know how smart you are. But we also know that you’re just a scared little child, afraid of making a mistake. Afraid that if you stop trying to prove how smart you are the world will leave you behind. Well guess what, my friend – in the end that makes you just like the rest of us. Sooner or later the world is going to leave all of us behind.

So while you’re here and in charge there’s something we need you to do. We need you to remember that while you think we’re following you, you are really following us. Left behind to do it right or do it wrong after we’re gone. And as much as we don’t like it at this moment, in this conference room, the future is in your hands.

So please, don’t screw it up.

2 Comment count
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Generation Nation

This post brings up about a million different points of discussion that would be so juicy to get into. Generational differences, leadership, organizational culture, etc. It's painful to see this; you have written it very well, and the emotion is palpable.

One thing amazes me about human behavior all the time: That a room full of adults acquiesce to someone appointed with power, whether they have earned it or not, speaks solely to fear of losing one's job, not love of the work. Leaders are born not made, in my opinion. Finding them, mentoring them and carefully developing an organization that makes best use of the talent of its leaders - as well as its workforce - is sadly lacking in so many businesses and government organizations.

See? You've gotten me going. Well done. I hope the culture changes for the better in the workplace you've described.

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All Brains and No Heart

Christine - you get it, that's for sure. And to what you say I'll only add that as long as the folks who lead us only lead us tactically without ever considering us emotionally no organization will ever really succeed. All brains and no heart not only makes for a dull place to work, it's a recipe for failure. Thanks for the comment - Tony.