Life in Steel
A common occurrence when working in the leadership development industry as a speaker, consultant and executive coach is being privy to the leadership challenges, personal concerns and aspirations of clients, colleagues, and friends. The job hazard of my type of work is that when someone learns what I do, they say something like “Boy, I could give you an earful about my world!!” (and then they do!). However, deeply meaningful conversations show up at the most unexpected moments and places. And if I’m really listening, powerful insights surface, courageous introspection is allowed and impactful decisions result. It was just this type of situation in which I found myself on a rainy Friday waiting on a delayed flight. It was another late night in an airport after a long week of travel. All I could think about was getting to my own bed, hugging my dog, and relaxing in the sights and smells of home. Instead, surrounded by the smell of dishwater and airport carpet, I overheard the only other living soul sharing a fast food counter with me say, “Looks like they could use some help around here.” Sure enough, two employees within eyesight were busily mopping the cracked linoleum floor and counting change at the register, but not so much as looked up to inquire if he needed food or drink. I suspected they wanted to go home as much as I did, and they found their closing tasks more important than helping their last two customers of the evening.
I hesitated starting a conversation with him, knowing how dangerous this can be. We all know that feeling—you can get stuck for an hour in their head. Curiosity and compassion for a fellow traveler got the best of me, and within a few minutes we were ordering off of the menu of casual conversation topics: what work brought us here, where work takes us, family, politics and sports. Then came the odd pause after sharing what I do for a living…and to my great surprise, this experienced welder from South Texas broke into a broad grin and remarked, “What a great job. You get to help fuse people together and make connections that last. And that’s what I do—but I do it with fire and steel.” He explained the nature of his work ranging from nuclear plants to large oceangoing vessels. In his industry, a poorly done connection can cost lives and millions of dollars. For that reason, his completed welds have a signature burned into the material next to any weld he completes.
Long after the night that a stranger in small southern airport saw the metaphor between forging steel connections and people connections, I’ve asked myself the question: What signature do I leave on people? Connections between people and between pipes—both are required for an enterprise to work well under the pressure of heat, change, time and limited resources. If done well, great things happen and life thrives. Done poorly, the risk of lives lost and financial catastrophe looms. I challenge myself daily, and those with whom I live and work, to put our signature on how we build relationships so that we would proudly sign each one.
Building relationships that last through the changes and dynamics of truth telling, goal changes, disappointment, physical and financial changes and more, requires art, science and continued practice. I’m grateful for a friend who’s out there welding in the world and the chance we both have to sign our names to enterprises and relationship—and build both to last.