My first real lesson in business leadership was given to me by this man when I was around my daughter's age… 10 years old. It was the big Minnesota ice storm of 1991 and my family and I were trapped in our house without power or water for 3 days.
We made it as long as we could, given the weather and circumstances. Then, we decided to load everyone up in the family car and drive to Dad’s company, Alamco, where we knew there was water and a backup generator for power. It took us well over an hour to make the 4-mile drive on glare ice.
When we arrived at the plant all I wanted to do as a 10-year-girl cooped up for that length of time with my two brothers and parents was take a shower! The bathrooms in the plant had shower stalls so once we were settled into an ‘area’ in the office, I set out to the floor to go get clean. I entered the bathroom with my showering stuff and before going into the shower stall, I went into a bathroom stall. As I swung the door shut behind me, I recall -very vividly- seeing graffiti on the door and walls. All sorts of horrible things about the company President… my Daddy.
I immediately began to cry. After a few minutes of confusion and emotion, I committed to the idea of removing all the horrible things written about my dad before he could see them and be impacted by the hate. I snuck carefully (I thought) up to the office supply closet near my family’s new temporary quarters and retrieved a scrub brush and cleaner. Once back in the plant bathroom, supplies in hand, I began again to weep and feverishly scrub the hatred from the stall walls. My younger self thought I would be able to do this (all 3 stalls) without my dad noticing or having to endure the pain of reading those words written about him.
About five minutes into my efforts, three loud knocks rang out from the outside bathroom door. I sniffled and sucked up my snot enough to respond with, “I’m getting in the shower, privacy please.” To which a deep fatherly voice replied, “You have 15 seconds to get decent. I’m coming in.”
Panicking, I began hiding the cleaning supplies and wiping my face dry of the tears. My dad walked in after the 15 second count and asked me what I was doing. I lied, "Just getting ready to shower." He read my little round face, my swollen red eyes, the cleaning bucket in the corner, and then asked me confidently and directly if I really thought he hadn’t seen the words written about him in the bathroom stalls… HE KNEW!
He was aware that some of his employees hated him. He had read the hateful words his subordinates wrote during their bathroom breaks! In awe and shock, I replied that he must not have known, or he would have removed it all. His response was the single greatest lesson of my business life…
He quietly sat down on the floor and motioned for me to join him. Then he told me this, “Mariah, my job is to make sure everyone in this company has a job today and tomorrow. The decisions I make are not popular and many people disagree with them. But… if I make the right decisions, as unpopular as they may be, and the result is that everyone gets to keep having a job - an income to take home and feed their families with - than I have served my purpose as the leader. If they are able to write these things, it means they are here - working… they have their job. That’s my job. Leading isn’t fun and it doesn’t get you many fans or friends but that’s not the point. The point is to protect income for others and opportunity for the company.”
He then offered to help me remove the graffiti so long as I understood it was a sign of growth and progress. We opted to leave it up and I learned that Leadership is a very hard responsibility that wasn’t about Self. It is about All.
May others have the grit to lead and endure the challenges of building a great company for the benefit of others at all levels. Lead with passion and understanding, work with the same.