King/Queen for a day!
I recently saw a post that talked about the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Oh how I love this story.
I used to refer to it a lot back in the day. Actually, I still do.
Sir/Mam You look marvelous but I think you may want me to tell you that you don’t have any clothes on.
"This is a fairly long story about leadership and how not to treat people. It is a personal story about one time in my life, a time that was rather unpleasant. A specific set of experiences that gave me a fundamentally powerful life lesson on how not and how to conduct yourself. It might just be my own personal therapy session. We all experience toxic leadership at some point in time, and as such this story is an attempt to share an experience and reinforce the importance of standing up for yourself and those who work for and with you. Ultimately it is a story, effective or not, about the principle of the matter. It is a story about facing difficult personalities, sticking to your guns, being principled and not being afraid to speak your mind." JDA
Enjoy or ignore.
Along the way, I have interacted with a myriad of personality types and organizations. Each individually and collectively driven by and because of the personalities of the people I have encountered and as such, the personality of the organization. People and personalities that have, for good or bad; supported, influenced, and affected the strategic, operational and tactical dynamics of interaction and engagement.
I can honestly say that life has never been dull. A non-exhaustive environment of never ending excitement. Experiences and interactions filled with emotionally intelligent people, before emotional intelligence became all the rage. There also were emperors with egos. Those who just couldn’t run without viewing anything outside of their sphere of influence with a not invented here-ism mindset or because of their individual brilliance, anything and everything that had ever been invented had occurred and been influenced solely because of them. There has been, looming just under the surface, the ever present aura of self-indulgent behavior. There have been numerous examples of emperors running amuck without any clothes on.
I love trying to figure people out—reading facial expression, reading body language, looking into their eyes, hearing their voice fluctuations and tonal inflection. In reading people I have become a pretty good judge of character and can fairly quickly size someone up. What makes them tick, what makes them not want to tick, and for some people why they tick the way they do in their own individual “tickyness” or in some instances, might I say tackiness. I have had a knack of being able to tell who is really parading fully clothed and who is promenading in their birthday suits.
Sometimes, when preparing for meetings or right in the middle of them when confronting the group think mentality of the bureaucracies I found (and actually still find) myself in moments where the emperor needed to be told the truth. You know, those places and times where you would find all kinds of behavior from active engagement, veiled brown nosing/blatant butt snorkeling, passive aggressiveness, and a myriad of avoidance techniques. Often, I would find myself turning to colleagues and merely asking, you going to tell him/her or you want me? It usually ended up being me.
I remember once early in my career, where I was young and my boss was old, my boss had this thing he did for all the folks leaving the organization. He called it "If you were King/Queen for a Day?"
It was the only opportunity for anyone to truly speak freely to this nut case.
I watched this event occur for over a year and a half, where he would spend 30 minutes listening to the outgoing "Kings and Queens." Then, one afternoon, my “day” to be King came.
But before I go further on that topic and explain that experience, let me provide some background and preface this by saying that he and I never synched. He was a self-absorbed, egotistical, narcissistic ass. He was an atrocious leader whom today would either be categorized as one who is clueless, toxic or maybe just a complete imbecile. Me, I was a youngster full of piss and vinegar and never hesitated to tell him what I thought and reveled in telling him he didn’t have any clothes on. How I survived this experience I have no clue, but survive it I did.
On the day that I joined the organization I showed up early in the morning as I was told that I would be having an “in call” with the boss. I was informed that this was really just a formality and would only take about 15 minutes at most, and then I would be "released" to focus on the important tasks that needed to be focused on.
Because the boss was a really important man, I was told that he was delayed and that because he was really important, that I would have to stand outside his office until he became un-delayed. Suffice it to say, at 5:30 in the afternoon, yes 11 hours after I deposited myself in front of his office, he finally had time to greet me.
He asked me into his office, said one word—“Welcome” paused for a second, and then pointed to a cot/couch sitting in the corner of his office. “You see that, that is the symbol of commitment. Three days a week I work here in the office and sleep here.”
For pity sake, he literally lived three minutes from the office.
He then said, “ I have to go to a meeting. See you at the next staff meeting.” This exchange literally took less than one minute. I just stood there thinking to myself, wow—11 hours for a passing: Hey, I am really important. Thanks for wasting your day, look at my commitment couch, see you later.
I am not easily impressed but I found myself thinking, you know this is going to be an interesting journey and it looks like the ride just might be a tad bumpy, but stand by--you have navigated bumpy roads before.
This was actually one of the few times I found myself immediately un-impressed.
It was, however, the first time that I had been confronted by what was an obvious example of plain and simple obnoxiously bad leadership. I would not be disappointed.
All of us on his staff were technical experts in our particular domains. At the next staff meeting, you know the one he said that he would see me at after my less than one minute of hot air and commitment couch coaching and 11 hours of productive standing? I showed up to the meeting thinking, like at my previous job, the really important man would provide insightful guidance and direction and that meetings at this level would last around 30 minutes, if that long.
Oh, how wrong I was. Being new, I didn’t really know what to expect other than my first impression was that he was an obnoxious asshole who had a commitment couch.
I arrived early to talk to the other leaders within the organization. Talking before and during these meetings apparently was not a part of the equation and organizational dynamic. Everyone seemed fidgety and kept going over their notes. It was like folks were preparing their lines for an audition. Then the boss showed up with two yellow legal pads. One brand new. The other, literally full of notes.
For the next three hours, we listened to this man go over the notes on his filled out yellow legal pad, and then watch and listened as he spouted off a laundry list of tasks he wanted accomplished and wrote each word down on his clear yellow legal pad.
I kid you not! Oh, did I say he already had that other legal pad full of all the brilliant stuff he had pontificated on, at the previous staff meeting. You see, he kept track and there was a common commitment couch approach to it all.
I think he must have been kept awake at night while sitting on that couch, pondering monumental thoughts of yellow legal pads and the growing list of things that still needed to get done and yellow legal pads yet unfilled.
I remember one day, we were informed that we should stop what we were doing as there was a special staff meeting that he had called. The only thought that came across my mind was that we were going to get a rousing speech on why each of us should have our own commitment couch. I wasn’t too far off. Alas, the meeting had a twofold purpose and commitment couches were merely a superficial and anecdotal part of this special meeting and the ensuing tirade we were subjected to. It went like this:
1) 7:30am. An hour lecture that started out with “Why is there trash in the trash can?” The hour lecture may have been my fault because I immediately responded with “Uh, because that is what trashcans are for?” Wrong answer. "Cluttered trash cans/cluttered mind. You see, clean trash cans are a reflection of an organized, disciplined well-functioning organization. When the trash cans are clean, everything else falls into place. You see, we are a well-organized and functioning organization. I don’t want anyone to come to us and have a visual image of an unkempt, disorderly or messy operation." The conference room we were in had windows. A bad thing. As he pondered the trash, at one point he looked out and saw a group of people standing outside, getting what appeared to be some instruction. They were actually a group of trash can cleaner outers, being given their trash tasks for the day. I am sure that one of those tasks was to empty the trash cans. He merely asked, "Who are those people and what are they doing?" In a less than typical moment, one of the staff said, "they are the group that is assigned with picking up trash and emptying the trash cans." "What are they doing out there at this time of day?" "This is the designated daily time that they meet to discuss their plans for picking up trash." Not good enough. Suffice it to say the world of the trash picker uppers was changed in a moment. "I don’t want to see them picking up trash this late in the day. I want to see them here at 4:30am every morning to pick up the trash and make us look like we are an organized, disciplined well-functioning organization." Yep, happy days for all. Ok, so after the hour lecture on full trash cans, we entered into the next iteration and utterances of brilliant leadership.
2) 8:30am to 12:30pm (a condensed version of the ensuing discussion): “Why don’t you all know how to prioritize?” Multiple yellow legal pads in hand, fist thumping on top of the accumulating stack of legal pads and an incredulous tone of disbelief as he lashed out at us all for not getting things accomplished, not being efficient, not being able to organize, and not prioritizing our work. On and on he beat that stack of yellow legal pads. One by one he went around the room berating us individually. We were at a rectangular table and we all had our designated places to sit. Not because of seniority, not because of importance, but because way back in the day, when he first arrived, that was where everyone was sitting. Me, I found myself seated where my predecessor had sat, and as such was towards the end of the rotation of berating because of my “clockwise location” as he systematically went around the rectangular table. Everyone else just sat there quite. They knew if they said something, anything, that more tasks would be heaped upon them as a result. He then came to me.
As he looked at me, his index finger started to tap the stack of yellow legal pads, I decided to take a leap and sarcastically broke in before he could hit me with his volley.
“Uhm, excuse me. I agree, I am atrocious at prioritizing and not truly understanding how I can be more efficient in executing the tasks that you have assigned me, could you help me?”
I then opened up my notebook that I brought to all such occasions. You know, that notebook you use to compile all your notes and planning activities etc. It contained a compilation of notes from previous meetings and then a list of lists of to-do’s and associated priorities from the boss for each one of the items from his stack of yellow legal pads. By this time there were months of meeting notes and multiple lists of things assigned, things to do, and a very limited number of things successfully checked off the to do lists. So I carefully went down my updated list of to-do’s and priorities that had occurred over my time with his exuberantly over emphasized and emphatic yet oblivious prioritization schema. I asked this brilliant man, “Ok-since this date you have given me a total of x number of tasks. Admittedly, I have accomplished a scant few. Here are the remaining to-do’s you have assigned for me to accomplish and here are the associated priorities.” The list was lengthy. As I rattled them off, a common theme unfolded. Every task was emphatically stated as a top priority, most equally stressed as his number one priority and each emphasized that they must be done now. So having only been with this organization for a few short months and either out of boldness or possibly just because of my youth and outright youthful stupidity I said “If everything is the number one priority, and if you don’t like how we are doing things, constantly reinforce and help us in the mysteries of the right way to do each and every one of these tasks, and constantly look over our shoulders and disrupt our actions to get the tasks completed, then how can anyone prioritize?” It was good that he had his stack of yellow legal pads with him as he flew into a rage.
“How dare you ask me that? You get paid to think through things, assess, make decisions, and yes, to prioritize. You obviously didn’t understand my direction when I gave it to you, now did you?”
Fortunately I had my notebook. With the list of tasks I had rattled off, for each one I re-emphasized that I had also included the date of the meeting from which they were assigned. There was never a due date assigned to any of these, just an expectation that they would be completed with a sense of urgency. So, at the expense of my fellow meeting mates, I just asked him to help me walk through my list. I had organized it chronologically and started off with the first task. “On this date, which I think you will find in your yellow legal pad dated such, you will see that the following tasks were assigned to me specifically. I think you will also find that, each one was caveated as the most important, top and also number one priority. As you are always on a roll with your taskings, you never responded to questions for clarification. As such, I merely took notes on what you were assigning me.” Since I am a pretty good note taker, I repeatedly went back to my notes for the meetings where any particular chronological series of tasks had been generated, and read my comments for each of the taskers. I continued, “If you recall, not only did you write all of this down (that is why he had so many filled out yellow legal pads), but you would not answer any questions requesting clarification, for that matter you would never respond to my follow on questions after our weekly meetings.”
Since we were engaged in discussing prioritization, I specifically asked the following question “Can you help me understand how to prioritize the list of most important, top priority and number one things that you have assigned me where every one of them is the number one, top priority most important thing you want done? I am sure you are aware that all of the ones you have assigned me will and do take considerable time to accomplish and I need to better understand which ones you truly view as critically important?” He responded with another “How dare you question me? I thought I made it clear that each one of these were my most important, top and number one priorities.” “Ok I got it, but please, just help me understand where I went wrong and I will do better in the future.” Let’s just suffice it to say, I got an individual ass chewing after this meeting.
Then there was the time that I was informed I was the worst staff officer this brilliant man had ever run across. I was confused. On this day I had just finished producing, at his request, a very comprehensive 450 page “uber” planning document based on an external crisis event that we were trying to understand and assess. There was a real potential that our organization might be called to support and it would not be an easy undertaking. Ok so what he wanted was no simple “task.”
In the analytic and production world, this document would have been placed under scheduled production plan that would be coordinated years in advance, due primarily to funding considerations which were not trivial in a normal sense. In a normal scenario, it would take months, if not years to produce depending on its priority, and get through the analytic and production pipeline because of its complexity. But hey, this was a crisis event, so none of that mattered. I dropped everything I was doing and focused my staff on getting this crisis planning document professionally completed. At the macro level, it included general information and at the micro level very refined/detailed, specific, precise and granular information. It included area orientation information, map products, logistical, transportation, infrastructure related information and the list goes on.
On the day I handed it to him, I was proud of what my team had accomplished and began saying so. Original in its content, it had not been reproduced yet. Thinking that he would be equally pleased I just wanted to show him the finished product before we sent it out to the printing plant to get produced in the necessary quantities. Before I could get another word in, this 450 page original document carefully put together in 2 weeks was tossed back at me with no regard for its contents. The hard work that had gone in to getting it done, the travel across three countries to obtain necessary materials and the pride of knowing that we had done something important just went flying through the air. Despite catching it, the jolt had caused many of the materials to become dislodged and scattered across his office floor. As I picked up the materials he felt compelled to inform me of my status in his eyes.
“I am an important man, I do not have time to read through 450 pages of information. I need you to provide me with an executive summary.” I asked him if he knew what he had asked me to provide him? I asked him if he knew what the document was used for? I told him that there indeed was a one page executive summary that explained all of that in the front of the document right after the cover page, but I had not been given the opportunity to show it to him before the document had been thrown back at me. He wanted to hear nothing of it.
He merely went in to a diatribe on how he assessed what his staff does and why, in his eyes, I was the worst staff officer he had ever been associated with. You see, his metric for gauging success and productivity was an administrative binder on a pedestal just outside his office. He condescendingly directed me to go get it. “Don’t open it, just fetch it and bring it to me.” So fetch his little binder I did, brought it to him and handed it to him.
He then proceeded to go on and on about the binder. He flipped through page after page of letters and “official” documents that the other staff officers had produced and put in this most important binder that sat on an alter like pedestal just outside of his office. Apparently filling it was kind of like a competition. Whoever had the biggest stack in his eyes, was the winner for the week regardless of substance.
As he flipped through page after page and sheets of really important papers, he kept reiterating, “Look can you see what your counterparts are doing? Can you see the amount of important work they are producing (like the 450 page document he had just tossed back at me didn’t matter)? What are you doing? What have you produced? What have you accomplished? Nothing. If it is not in this binder, it doesn’t count.”
So, I said to him “ok, fair enough.” “I understand that nothing I have done up to this point has counted, the document that you just threw back at me although needed and will be used once it is put back together, doesn’t count. I have seen that binder and know exactly what it is and how things can officially get in there. The binder is your “By Direction” binder where any action under that rubric can only occur if you have delegated in writing to me, the ability to legally represent you and do so in an official capacity with signature authority. There is only one challenge. My name and any materials are not in that binder because you have not authorized me to serve as a signatory agent on your behalf.”
Red in the face, he angrily slammed his fist on the desk and cried aloud “bull shit, bull shit” and immediately summonsed his chief administrative officer to his office. Promptly arriving, he turned to the admin officer, and said that I obviously did not know what I was talking about as he would have caught an oversight like this. He then asked about my status. The admin officer said, “…no sir he is correct we have asked you on several occasions to sign his letter, but you have either refused or had other pressing matters.” At that point the admin officer stopped what he was saying as it looked like the really important man was going to explode. After a few quite moments, he had the letter in front of him, signed it and like nothing had happened, said “ok go do great stuff.”
There were far too many examples like this. Daily occurrences and instances of absolute lunacy and buffoonery. Far too many to be honest. Most were unnecessary, some were humorous, and others were just way too painful. They all served a purpose I guess. For him, it was to reinforce his indulgent self-image of being an important man who had a commitment couch. For me, they merely served as life lessons on what to and not to do as a result of incompetent, ineffective and toxic leadership. But that is not what this story was about, it started out about the emperor not having any clothes and my opportunity to be King for a Day.
OK, so back to my special day experience. I told you that he and I didn’t synch. Unlike all the other occasions where he spent 30 minutes with everyone else, he avoided me during my farewell event and then came up to me and because he was really important said, "I have to go to a meeting, you have 30 seconds to be King." You remember how I was introduced to this buffoon. 11 hours standing for less than a minute and a commitment couch coaching tutorial?
I told him I didn't need 30 seconds, and merely said "Maybe stop being such a self-indulgent, egomaniac, narcissistic micro-manager and maybe let your people do their jobs." I then turned around and left knowing that this buffoon was who he was, cloaked in nothing but BS, and me I would either fail or succeed by telling any emperor the flippin truth.
Despite being a non-conformist, and being a recovering piss and vinegar kind of person, over the years I have been haunted by the fact that I didn’t say anything about his commitment couch. Despite that, I think I did ok in navigating the pathways along my journey leading up to my present point on the roads of my life, some heavily and some less travelled.
If there is a lesson in this it is twofold:
1) Wear clothes for goodness sake.
(A freebie. If you see someone walking around without any clothes on, or a booger in their nose, food in their beard, or spinach in their teeth. Tell them.)
2) Don’t have a commitment couch.
For other works by Joel Anderson: https://www.bebee.com/@joel-anderson
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author