Spirit At Work -- Honey or Vinegar?

Dec. 21, 2004
Too often, fear and intimidation take an economy-class seat to compassion and empathy.

Many executives were taught to believe that the warrior archetype represents the acceptable and most effective path to achievement and success. This, of course, flies in the face of history. Few of the greatest leaders were warriors; many more were teachers, visionaries, and mentors. Yet many corporate leaders remain oblivious to the increased leverage and potential available to them if they traded their aggression and testosterone-saturated posturing for empathy, compassion, and love. Sound wimpy? Listen up. A while ago a rainstorm shut down the Pittsburgh airport. I was stranded for 14 hours. Soon, the airport was transformed into an ugly showcase for corporate warriors displaying their frayed tempers. I travel a lot --over 400 flights last year -- so I often encounter these situations and, when I do, I amuse myself by observing homo executivus responding to stress. Frequently, when the airfield becomes socked in and a ground-stop keeps all the aircraft attached to their gates, executives switch to warrior mode, berating airline staff with abuse, anger, and bombast. It apparently works at the office --why not the airport? On this day in Pittsburgh, one primitive example was pounding the customer-service staff with insults and venting his frustration. After a string of insults and shrill sarcasm, he paused, unsure if he was being effective. Catching his breath, he prepared to unleash an increased intensity of invective. Slowly and deliberately he puffed up to his full executiveness, determined to impress: "Don't you know who I am?" he spluttered. The reservation clerk, doing an impressive imitation of a swan -- serene on the surface, but paddling like crazy below -- reached for the microphone and announced calmly, "Excuse me for a moment ladies and gentlemen; I have a man here who apparently doesn't know who he is." Recently weather caused me to become stranded in the Toronto airport. My flight had been canceled and my fellow travelers and I were bumped to the next flight, delaying our departure by more than three hours. The airport was bedlam. A frazzled customer-service representative booked me onto the next flight and handed me my boarding pass. I thanked her and said, "You are having a really bad day. Is there anything I can do to make this a little less stressful for you? Would you like a bottle of water, a coffee, something? Since, thanks to you, I now have all this extra time to spare, perhaps I can do something to help you?" She looked at me in amazement for a moment, stunned, and said, "No, it's quite OK. Thank you for asking, though. I'm fine. But, you know, I'll tell you what I can do for you. I can bump you up to first class. I have all these extra people from your flight squished into the economy cabin and I need to move some of you into first class -- it may just as well be you!" I smiled and said, "Thanks." So which system works best? My mother used to say more flies can be caught with honey than vinegar. What makes anyone think they can unplug an airport that is in a ground-stop situation by screaming abuse? Why do we think that intimidation and fear will cause others to bend in our favor? Surely it does not require post-Neanderthal intelligence to understand my mother's wisdom. Some leaders believe they can elicit high performance from others by intimidating them into the results they hope for. But great leaders know that servant leadership -- serving the needs of others before our own -- is the fail-safe method of serving oneself. It doesn't matter if the motivation for doing this is enlightened self-interest or a genuine caring and love for others. Either way, giving in order to receive always creates good karma. If you really love something, let it go and it will return. Inspire others to high performance by serving and loving them. In the end, the universe does not reward bullies. Lance Secretan is an advisor to leaders, a public speaker, and a recipient of the 1999 International Caring Award, presented by the Caring Institute, Washington. Author of nine books, including Inspirational Leadership, Destiny, Calling and Cause (1999, CDG Books).

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