Be Great At Being Yourself

Is it the title, the money, or the prestige you are seeking? Or is it something else?

For his whole career after the military, my grandfather, my mother’s father, worked for the telephone company. This was when there was one, single telephone company for the entire country, before it got split up into the multitude of smaller companies we have now for our phone services. Most of his time with the phone company was spent in a leadership role, as a manager to a group of repair teams, each of which was made up of a foreman and multiple repair technicians.

One of the things he liked to do as a manager, was to ride along with different technicians as a way to get to know them and their goals and aspirations. He thought that it was important to understand the motivations of the people who worked for him, even the people who were several levels below him in the company’s hierarchical structure. There are multiple stories that my grandfather told me about these ride-alongs with the technicians, most of them meant as leadership lessons for me to contemplate in my own career. One of these stories has been on my mind a lot lately after his recent passing and it is especially pertinent with regards to my present career path.

During one of these ride-alongs, my grandfather began asking the technician he was with questions about his life and what he hoped to achieve with the phone company. “I want your job,” the technician told him. “Why is that,” my grandfather asked. “It’s okay to be a technician, you know? With overtime, you make about the same amount of money as a foreman and I don’t make much more than that. Money can’t be the reason. If it’s about prestige with your neighbors and you’re ashamed of being a repairman, all you have to do is wear a suit to the shop and change into your coveralls when you get there. Then, change back into the suit again when you’re done and wear it home. Your neighbors will think you have a white collar job. If money and prestige are not the reasons, let me ask you, are you a leader? It’s okay if you’re not. There is no shame in that. It’s better to be a great repairman than a crappy leader.”

-Robert Van Valkenburgh teaches Taikyoku Budo & Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Kogen Dojo

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