Updated: Aug 10
This first stage of growth is to realize we are born with compassion and empathy for others, and the ability to be true to them and ourselves.
I began my entry into the adult world of work when I was thirteen and fourteen years old. During summer vacations my parents sent me on an airplane from Racine, Wisconsin, to Rockville, Maryland, to stay with my sister and brother-in-law. This is where and when I learned to have compassion and empathy for others, and the ability to be true to myself; both, as I would discover, are components of servant leadership. My brother-in-law owned and operated a gas station, and I was fortunate enough to be employed by him as a “pump jockey.” During the 1980s, pump jockeys worked outside at the gas pumps and monitored the self-service and full-service sides of the gas pumps.
On the self-service side, I was responsible for ensuring that everyone who pumped their own gas paid for it. This meant that I, a thirteen-year-old kid, had the responsibility of having a large fold of paper bills in my right-front pocket, and a coin change dispenser attached to my belt on the left to give out change for customer transactions. During the morning and evening rush hours there were always long lines of cars waiting for gas, and if I let a customer leave without paying for their gas it meant that that transaction would come out of my paycheck. This reality in itself guaranteed I paid close attention, as excuses were costly and not tolerated.
Credit cards were in their infancy then. Electronic payment was not an option. Instead, to charge a credit card, the pump jockey had to place the customer’s card into a small rectangular device where a carbon-copy form was placed over it. The device had a hand roller that transferred the card’s information from its raised characters onto the form that created the receipts.
On the full-service side, customers would drive up to the pumps, roll down their window, and tell the pump jockey to either “fill ’er up” or dispense the customer’s desired dollar amount of gas while the customer remained in the car. Other amenities of full service were cleaning the windows, checking and topping off the car’s fluids, and checking tire pressure and adding air if needed. (I always dreaded the customer on a hot summer day who would insist I check their car’s radiator fluid. This was a dangerous and unnecessary job, and, yes, there were people who would insist that a thirteen-year-old kid open up a piping-hot radiator cap.)
I learned many valuable lessons during those summer days. First, my young teenage eyes got the impression that the East Coast had a more competitive lifestyle than my “Midwest-nice” upbringing. But what I also discovered from the interactions with those competitive East Coast customers was that people’s basic needs are still the same regardless of differences in their attitudes, opinions, or accents. I learned the servant leadership quality of listening, not just with my ears, but also with my senses. I remember quite a few customers who were having a bad day, or were insolent to me during our transaction, and some would return later to apologize and thank me for being kind, patient, and forgiving. These moments of humility made the long, hot days inhaling gas fumes, exhaust fumes, and cigarette smoke somehow better and worth the paycheck.
The pump-jockey job provided my first taste of real responsibility, and it is where I believe my work ethic was first established. I learned what having a sense of urgency meant, how it helped the goals of a business, and its significant and positive effect on the customer—a characteristic that would follow me throughout my life. My brother-in-law was my first boss, and he provided me my first life and leadership moment: tolerate no favoritism, treat others in a just and right way, and have the same expectations for all. If I, or any employee screwed up, he let us know. As a result, I wanted to work hard to not let him, or myself down. (And being able to spend my paychecks on whatever I wanted was an additional benefit!)
This taste of adulthood flew with me back to Wisconsin. When I turned fifteen and a half I knew I would be eligible to get my driver’s license soon. My parents agreed to let me use one of their cars to drive to school and work if I could pay for my own auto insurance and gas. So, I enrolled in a private driving school, and my mother helped me get a job at the nursing home where she worked as a physical therapist. I was hired as an aide to the nurses’ aides and would work part-time during the evenings after school and full-time on the weekends.
My duties there were to sort, fold, and deliver the residents’ clothes and keep their water pitchers filled with fresh water and ice. On the weekend day shift I would replace the residents’ bedding after the nurses got the residents out of their beds. I did this for about six months until new management took over and eliminated my job. I was then fortunate enough to be offered a new position working in the kitchen. I worked on the tray line where I read nutrition cards that instructed how much and what type of food was to be dispensed on the residents’ trays, and I would transport the tray carts of food to the residents’ rooms and to the dining halls.
I would then serve the trays to the residents, work in the dining rooms, and sometimes feed residents who could not feed themselves. Afterward, I gathered the tray carts and returned them to the washroom where I stripped them and sent them through the dishwasher. I performed this job until I graduated from high school, and after I graduated, I was promoted to the full-time position of stockman for the kitchen. My new responsibilities were to receive the deliveries of food and distribute the food to the appropriate storerooms, read the menus for the next day, and stock the kitchen. The experiences I gained in this position added to and enhanced my understanding of working with people and developing myself.
For instance, one evening the nurses were short-staffed, and they asked me to help feed a resident. The man did not talk, though I don’t remember if this was because he could not or he just did not want to. I began to feed him his meal, and he ate all his dinner very well. I opened his dessert of applesauce and began to spoon it into his mouth. I noticed that he was consuming the applesauce faster than his dinner, so I assumed he really liked it. But when I offered the last spoonful of applesauce I discovered he had been saving every bite in his mouth and not swallowing any of it, because he suddenly spewed the entire dessert into my face. This relates to a life and leadership moment: when you sense or notice something is off or out of the norm, pay attention and deal with it as soon as possible. More often than not it is your signal that something may be building that can blow up on you if it is not addressed in the early stages.
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