Leadership as a choice
I've been waiting in line for 20 minutes to receive my rental car. The customer ahead of me is having a heated argument with the clerk: he's being refused service because he didn't take a ticket from the dispensing machine when he joined the queue. The customer is getting angrier by the minute, the atmosphere is loaded with tension and I'm getting more and more uncomfortable. A quick glance behind me shows me that other waiting customers are getting upset: nobody is being served until the situation is resolved. The clerk's manager is pretending not to notice. Somebody should do something about this.
The essence of leadership
I remember watching a course on leadership and for developers (paywall), where the presenter made a great point: "leadership is a choice". It has nothing to do with your role in the company or the position you have in the hierarchy. Instead, it has to do with a desire to get involved and make things right.
The author quoted some experiences from an activity he volunteered for years ago - how some difficult situations arose, and how the appointed leader was unable to solve them. The presenter managed to fix them by deciding to step up and get involved.
Going back to the scene I described earlier, I realised that nobody was stepping up to handle a very uncomfortable situation. A clearly broken company process wasn't helping, customers and staff were on edge, but no employee felt empowered to solve the issue. Perhaps there was something I could do?
Being the next in line, I tried the obvious approach: I showed my ticket to the clerk and offered to share it with the first customer. The clerk refused. The company had a very strict policy: "one customer, one ticket".
I looked behind me again: there were only 4-5 other people waiting in the queue. Suddenly an idea dawned on me.
I took a new ticket from the dispensing machine, walked to the last person in the line, and politely asked him if he would accept to swap his ticket for the one I had just picked up. "If we all pass our ticket down the line", I explained, "we could keep the same order in the queue and have a spare ticket to give to the first customer". It took me 1 minute to explain my idea to all the customers in the queue, but when they understood it, they all immediately agreed. We rotated the tickets down the line, and I ended up with a spare ticket to give to the customer at the counter, who was now almost blue with rage.
The man took my ticket without smiling (he was very flustered at that point), and handed it to the clerk, who breathed a sigh of relief and started processing the paperwork for the car.
The people waiting in the line clapped (I kid you not!) at my intervention.
A few minutes later the customer received his car keys and he went away. The queue started moving forward again. The tension in the room evaporated, replaced by smiles.
Aye, aye, capt'n
Is this the behaviour of a natural born leader? I very much doubt so. But it's a great example (and a true story!) that shows that we can make a difference if we decide to step up and fix a broken situation.
If you come up with a solution to a difficult situation, you don't need permission to express it. All you need to do is raise your hand, explain how it will make things better, and try to persuade everyone involved.
If there is a moral to this story, it's obviously this: "avoid cheap car rentals: the bad service is not worth it". I can say that with authority, having worked for one of the top car rental companies in the world.
But there's also a second message: you can take the lead to solve a difficult situation without being an appointed leader.
Ever since this situation happened, I've been trying to address issues when they arise at work. They are not always easy to spot, and solutions don't come as easily, but so far I've had moderate success.
What about you? Do you have an example of a moment where you stepped up to solve a difficult situation? Could this experience apply to your job as well? If it doesn't, perhaps I should have titled this article "Leadership for car rental customers" instead.
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