From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

A Lesson in Leadership

It is not who is right, but what is right, that is of importance.

Thomas Huxley

I was born in South Africa, two years before apartheid was instituted as the political and social system of the land. I was raised with all the privileges of a white South African, and I was taught that the people with the greatest authority were also the people with the greatest competence. On my first job, one man dislodged me permanently from my mistaken belief.

At age 20, I left the white beaches of Cape Town, where I had been raised, to pursue a career in Johannesburg. “Egoli,” the City of Gold, teemed with millions of tribal laborers. Like me, they came to the belly of South Africa to partake of its riches. They worked—often under extreme conditions and with bleak futures—to sustain their own bodies and their families hundreds of miles away in their homelands. I worked expecting that my sacrifices would pay off in perpetual promotion within the managerial class.

I worked in the factory. The plan called for me to spend several months in one department of the factory to learn how it functioned before being sent up to another department. In the end, I’d know the business from the ground floor up, and I’d be ready for the upper echelons of management.

In the first department, I—a novice—was expected to supervise eight experienced men. How could it be that a trainee was elevated to such responsibility? The answer in apartheid South Africa was a simple one: I was white and they were black.

Early one spring morning, I was summoned to the office of the managing director, Mr. Tangney. As I walked toward the plush administrative sanctums, I trembled. I knew what no one else had openly acknowledged. I was incompetent. For weeks, I had supervised the manufacture of precision brass water valves. Under my direction the crew produced an intolerably high percentage of scrap metal.

“Sit down, my boy,” Mr. Tangney said. “I’m very pleased with the progress you’re making, and I have a special job for you and your crew. You see, the summer hail this year is anticipated to be pretty bad again. Last year’s hail damaged my car and the cars of the three other directors. We’d like you and your crew to construct a large carport to protect our cars.”

“But sir,” I stammered, “I don’t know the first thing about construction!” Tangney seemed not to hear.

I did my best to figure out what materials were needed, ordered them, and we set to work. The men were uncharacteristically quiet as they did exactly what I told them. I instructed them to measure, saw and nail lumber together in several panels. I visualized the panels fitting together to form walls and a sturdy roof. Finally, the modules were constructed. It was time to fit everything together. I was anxious. The men were silent.

As the others looked on I helped one of the men, Philoman, set in place a heavy construction module. Philoman spoke very little English. Until that moment of cooperative effort, I had never made eye contact with him. Like most blacks in South Africa at that time—out of fear it would be considered a challenge—Philoman had learned to avert his eyes from the gaze of whites. As we maneuvered the heavy component into place, not having language to communicate, Philoman and I looked into one another’s eyes and coordinated our movements. I will never forget his eyes. As our eyes locked, my identity as a supervisor fell away, and I saw not a black man struggling under a heavy load, but a co-worker.

But once again, my calculations were grossly off. Seeing my despondence at the ill-fitting construction, Philoman called to the others.

The crew all gathered around Philoman, talking and gesticulating excitedly. I got the feeling they were deciding my fate. Then Philoman took a stick and drew a rough diagram in the sand, talking all the while at the top of his lungs. Occasionally one of the others added something. Then, while I looked on helplessly, with Philoman directing, they proceeded to rectify the construction. After a few hours they were satisfied. Philoman called the crew and me together, and with a wide grin and sweat pouring down his face, he turned to me and said, “Basie, we fixed up.”

I was grateful. I’ll always treasure Philoman’s lesson in leadership. But Philoman had done more for me than he intended. With great compassion and humility, he had shown me the truth of the apartheid system and the lie it perpetuated. Status has nothing to do with competence. A few months later I left that job, a far wiser young man.

Michael Shandler, Ed.D.

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