Flakes, Phonies, and Frauds: Old and Salty Edition
About three years into my career — a career I would describe more of a calling — my then supervisor announced his retirement. That was seventeen years ago. I remember being sad and anxious to hear this news. I liked him a lot and respected him even more. In the short time that I worked for him, he had managed to shape my understanding of the job, the purpose I served, the ground rules for effectiveness and productivity, and what my expectations should be from my leaders. The most incredible part was that he did all this with relatively very little talking or lecturing. In fact, he was actually quite moody, had very little tolerance for shallow flattery or those who engaged in “busy talk” to make up for their lack of substance. I often found myself asking for the “weather report” from one of my colleagues before approaching him. For the most part, he let his actions make all the noise and define him as a leader and public servant. I benefited from his leadership through what he did and what he did not do, his selfless motivations, and commitment to those who possessed the same work ethic and values. When I think back at why he made such a lasting impression on me I recall very few conversations. I mostly recount specific occasions seared into my memory where I witnessed competence, responsibility, accountability, fairness, and integrity in his actions. I didn’t connect the dots at the time. I just took it for granted that all this was the norm. He earned my respect, trust, and admiration. I was sad to see him leave. Recently when I threw my name in the hat for a leadership position, I thought maybe…just maybe I can be half as good a boss as he was. He had done the job and knew what he was talking about. He was all about the mission, with very little interest in self-promotion or meaningless minutia. Most importantly, he always kept his word and removed administrative obstacles so that I was free to do my job.
He was old and salty. Well, at the time I thought he was old. Now, that I can nearly smell and taste the magic age of “50,” I would more accurately describe him as savvy and experienced. But the job had taken its toll and I could see he was getting tired. I was new to the game, naïve in my outlook (perhaps best described as youthful optimism), and eager and motivated beyond even my own expectations. I was completely focused on my job, extremely competitive, and worked like my life depended on my productivity. I followed his guidance without question and achieved results well beyond what was expected from someone of my relative inexperience and short tenure. He liked all of that. Therefore, he liked me. In a male-dominated environment where your mistakes are oftentimes perceived as permanent tattoos, I could use all the support I could get. He was well respected by everyone. An “endorsement” from this person gave me instant credibility from my male counterparts and senior management. Yay for me! I was one of the lucky ones who was baptized by him into what would become a 20–25-year career I loved in service of my country.
A few months after he retired, on a Saturday morning, I remember receiving a surprise telephone call from him. I was quite startled, but happy to talk to him again. After asking me how I was doing and giving me an update on his post-retirement agenda, he proceeded to ask me a cryptic question. I could tell he was uncomfortable. I say this because I knew him to be a very direct and no-nonsense communicator, with very little patience for subtleties. Clearly, he was trying to get me to read between the lines. After failed attempts, he reverted to his authentic no-nonsense self and bluntly told me what was going on. Basically, he called me to warn me about permanently staying clear of an individual in my wider professional circle who was not an ally and did not wish me well (to say the least). He told me about a very disturbing incident from a year prior that I did not know about. He had made the decision to wait until the situation had resolved before I found out so that it would not sour my outlook on the job or diminish my focus on my work. Upon resolution and prior to his retirement, he had asked another leader to warn me about future interactions with this individual. Suspecting it would not happen, he wanted to personally follow-up. Wow. Even in retirement, he was watching out for me.
My heart sank after learning the specific details but I was comforted to hear about my supervisor’s aggressive and brave intervention on my behalf early on to protect me from this individual’s malicious attempt to derail my career and cause me great professional harm- all because of petty jealousy. I never, ever knew about it. I felt let down, angry, and confused about the situation; but also, grateful that I had a supervisor who had the experience and judgment to see right through what was going on and understood his responsibility to protect me behind the scenes while I was working 12-hour days on an extremely stressful job assignment. He had the foresight to know that the situation was baseless and meritless, but without effective intervention, had the potential to take on a disastrous life of its own. And as a new, wide-eyed employee, I was not prepared to handle malignant acts of jealousy from an older, much more experienced “good guy” whom I believed to be an ally, while expending all my energy, time, and effort on challenges associated with the actual job. That kind of grit and savviness comes with more time, experience, and practice swimming in shark-infested waters. I know because over the last twenty years I’ve developed that grit and savviness through fighting many battles, winning some, losing some, but always bouncing back. I reassured him that I would follow his advice and stay completely clear of this individual. The guy eventually fizzled off.
I hung up the phone with a new understanding of what people are capable of. From then on, I would choose my tribe more carefully. Lesson learned…not everyone is pulling for you. With time and experience, I’ve learned to spot these people quickly and pivot as fast as I can. Looking back, I truly believe my supervisor’s single act of intervention in this regard saved my career. I am forever grateful for his investment in my success and whatever value it was he saw in me to fight for me. He was and continues to be a true mentor and guide.
It was not until many years later that I realized the influence, at a much deeper level, this person had on the development of my professional optics, performance, and ability to overcome obstacles. By that I mean the lessons he unwittingly passed on through his actions as a leader and someone with influence over me were far more impactful than I had the capacity to take in when I was new. But the seeds were planted and in time they would develop into my core values, understanding of my purpose at work, and the resilience necessary to survive over the long haul.
Most notably, his influence instilled in me the knowledge that your confidence and capabilities will inherently intimidate insecure people. You may be denied opportunities, not get credit you deserve, or be unfairly devalued. But I truly believe that ultimately everyone’s actions and results speak for themselves. “There are three things you can’t hide…the sun, the moon, and the truth.” (thanks, Buddha). As hard as it is, you must dig deep and continue to shine from exactly where you are. Pay very close attention to other people’s actions; especially those who are not clapping for you or want to dim your light. Exercise discernment and make adjustments with integrity. That’s how you solidify your tribe. Most important, don’t stay stuck. Pave a new path and believe, like Rumi said, that it’s all somehow “rigged in your favor” because your actions will make it so. And remember to stay competent, confident, productive, and always watch out for others. The more you hold yourself accountable the more respect you will garner from those who will empower you through their loyalty and support.
As I enter the final phase in my career and reflect on all my experiences, accomplishments, successes, failures, and how I rebounded from every last one of them, I feel proud. I know my service has made an impact. I am confident in my core values of hard work and achieving results. I watch out for others. Those who see me as value-added get to benefit from everything I bring to the table, much like I benefitted from the person who did that for me. And I’m okay with those who aren’t interested. I guess I’m old and salty…maybe even moody, with very little tolerance for shallow flattery or those who engage in “busy talk” to make up for their lack of substance.