I used to load food on airplanes at Sea-Tac International Airport. In theory, loading each flight on time was easy; the only factors that could make the job difficult were delayed flights, broken-down trucks or weather problems.
If things went smoothly, we had three hours to load three planes, but often flight delays would place all three on the ground at the same time, at which point we had to figure out quickly how to be in three places at once. If an airplane ever had to wait for loading to be finished, our company would be charged $100 a minute, which in those days was a lot of money. This very bad situation was also called a delay, but we were good at adjusting on our feet, so delays on our end were rare.
At one point on this job I had a boss who came straight from college with a master's in business administration, which was supposed to mean he knew how to manage us properly. He had good hair and looked like a game-show host. He was the kind of guy who might clean his garage with a sweater tied around his waist while wearing unscuffed boat-deck shoes. He never helped.
When something went wrong, this boss would call out to a team of loaders preparing for a flight and order them to run a meal or something else out to a waiting airplane. He was clueless. We knew if we did what he said it would start a chain reaction leading to multiple delays. So we often ignored what he told us and orchestrated the rescue with other loaders ourselves so that each flight went out on time. He didn’t care, as long as he looked good at the end of the day.
In contrast, we had another weathered supervisor who had worked his way up in the organization and could step in and do our jobs if needed. Sometimes he did. When he had to recruit emergency help, he would call out to us and simply ask, “What are you doing now?” That question allowed him to figure out who could best be pulled off his current assignment to go fight a fire. He respected us because he knew we were the only ones who understood exactly where all the moving pieces were.
Only a few leaders understand that respect should flow both ways, up and down the ladder. Does your boss panic like you do when you realize you are going to be late for a meeting with her? Does she call you from the airport to explain she’s going to need to reschedule?
Once, when a supervisor from the top floor missed a meeting with me, he sought me out at my office in the basement to apologize and take care of business. He did not summon me up to his office with no explanation for why he’d failed to show up. Another boss stopped what he was doing in the middle of a busy day to drive me to his home so he could loan me a book. He knew I was dealing with a family crisis and wanted to help in whatever way he could.
Novelist Paul Eldridge wrote, “A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.”
This is not to disparage rank; there are reasons for it. It's helpful to have someone in charge who can take responsibility for decisions. I would not do well in an organization where everyone held hands and sang "Kumbaya." But I do not believe rank exists so supervisors can easily identify inferiors whom they can quickly replace if they disagree with them.
I once asked Stephen R. Covey if he ever worked with leaders who sought out his help for their companies but were blind to their own shortcomings. He said, “All the time.”
So if you have an office big enough to host an aerobics class, ask yourself this: Do you treat all the people who work for you with respect, even when you don’t have to? If someone treated you the way you treat others, how would it make you feel? How about the rest of us? Do you know the names of the people who come to your office to pick up the recycling? Are you courteous to the people who serve you at a restaurant or at McDonald's? Do you ever give the boss a sincere compliment? I have it on good authority that a lot of the top dogs have feelings, too.
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