A mentor introduced me to servant leadership in an unconventional way: We spun our wedding rings like tops on a conference table and let them joust. It was how we unwound after 14-hour days in the early dot-com era.
I’d just been promoted over peers and was in the first weeks of the new mantle. Some members of the team were open about their lack of enthusiasm regarding their new boss. Some were passive aggressive about it. Some were snide. One put comments about the “redhead wannabe” in the html source code of the newspaper’s homepage. We’ve all been there.
I weathered it until my mentor and I went to the conference room to battle wedding bands. Then I opened up to him about my insecurities and doubts. I was 31, finding my feet in a new city, with hour-long commutes at both ends of the day. Sometimes, it can be lonely in the middle.
While the gold rings chipped at each other, my mentor said, “If you think it’s their job to make you feel successful as a boss, you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s your job to help them succeed. When they feel successful, that’s when they’ll respect you.”
His ring whacked mine and it careened off the table. And I never looked at leadership the same way again.
These past months have found me in another form of servant leadership: caregiving. My father had a stroke two months ago, and doctors found a small mass resting on his thalamus – a part of the brain I like to call Grand Central Station. It’s a place neurosurgeons tread very carefully, if at all.
That started a journey familiar to many: Ambulance, ICU, diagnosis, treatment, graduation to a “regular room,” re-hab, physical therapy and, thankfully, discharge. I arrived an hour behind the ambulance and began another journey familiar to many: Advocating for one parent with medical teams – and sometimes cajoling the patient to do what he did not want to do – while caring for another parent whose memory loss makes every day a blurry canvas.
I would make eye contact with other caregivers in the infrequent moments outside the hospital rooms. Catching up on work and the outside world – or just adding a few steps to the lonely FitBit – we’d nod at each other. Get another cup of coffee, maybe a Kind bar, and get back at it.
Didn’t I wear this shirt yesterday?
Thank god the vending machine outside radiology takes Apple Pay.
I wonder if the Shell station sells wine?
The world narrows in times like that. Everything focused on helping one parent heal and another parent cope. Acting as the node for what I called The Sacrament Telegraph – the communication chain of their church and community. Ending the day drained – but always a few thousands steps shy of my FitBit goal – and passing out on a recliner. All the while thinking about those battling wedding rings.
It’s your job to help them succeed.
Now my father is on home PT and walking regularly, with Meals on Wheels delivering more food than they can eat. (Favorite quote from my father: “It’s good for you and almost as cheap as Wendy’s.”) We’re all inventing a new normal.
Completing projects with deadline extensions, thanks to understanding clients. Exploring home-assistance programs. Re-engaging the business pipeline. Launching two kids in college, one in law school, one in post-graduate work and one in 8th grade. Logging into medical portals to look at MRI results. Negotiating new contracts and talking to attorneys. Selling a house. Calling to see what meals were delivered (fruit salad, barbecue chicken, baked beans and dessert). New normal.
Taking a moment this week with a friend who also has been in the role of caregiver, we had a glass of wine – not from Shell – and I told him the story of the battling wedding rings. We talked about how being a caregiver is its own form of leadership. You’re helping people be the hero in their own story.
While they’re helping you be the hero in yours.
We clinked our glasses.