Leadership and Self-Deception

Chapter 23: Birth of a Leader

A leader realizes his “boxiness” and changes.


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“We left Arizona the following night on the red-eye. We’d planned to spend a few days of R&R in San Diego before going home, but our plans had all changed. I’d heard that Kate would be starting her new job in the Bay Area in just a few days. I desperately hoped that I could catch her before she left. I needed to deliver something to her,” Lou said, looking out the window again. “I needed to take her a ladder.”

“A ladder?” I asked.

“Yes, a ladder. One of the last things I did to Kate before she left,” he continued, “was demand that a ladder be removed from her sales area. Her department had decided to use the ladder as a visual aid in promoting some sales goals. I thought it was a stupid idea and told her so when she asked me about it. But they went ahead and did it anyway. Later that night, I told the custodial staff to remove the ladder from the premises. Three days later, she and the other four members of the March Meltdown group gave me their two-month’s notices. I had them removed by our security staff within an hour-didn’t even allow them to go back into their offices alone. Anyone who turned on me like that couldn’t be trusted, I told myself. And that was the last time I had seen or spoken with Kate.

“I can’t explain it, but I just knew that I needed to take her a ladder. It was a symbol of so much. And so I did.

“Carol and I arrived back at JFK at about 6:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. I had the limo driver drop Carol off at home and then take me by the office, where I rummaged through a half-dozen or so supply closets before I found a ladder. We then tied it to the top of the car and headed up to Kate’s place in Litchfield. It was about 9:30 or so when I rang her doorbell, the ladder laid across my back.

“The door opened and I saw Kate, her eyes in wide surprise at the sight of me. ‘Now before you say anything, Kate, I have something I’ve got to say, even though I don’t know how I can ever begin to say it. First of all, I’m sorry for just barging in on you on a Sunday morning, but it couldn’t wait. I.umm, I.’

“All of a sudden, Kate just busted up laughing. ‘Sorry, Lou,’ she said, doubled over against the door jamb. ‘I know you must have something serious to say, or you wouldn’t be here, but the sight of you hunched over with that ladder is just too much to take. Here, let me help you put it down.’

“‘Yeah, about the ladder,’ I said, ‘that’s as good a place to start as any. I should’ve never done what I did. I don’t know why I did it, to be honest. I should’ve never even cared.’

“Kate had stopped laughing then, and was listening intently. ‘Look, Kate,’ I said, ‘I’ve been a real jackass. You know that. Everyone knows it. But I didn’t know it until two days ago. Or I couldn’t see it, anyway. But I can sure see it now. And the sight of what I’ve done to the people I care about most in my life terrifies me-and that includes you.’

“She just stood there, listening. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

“‘I know that you’ve got something really good lined up,’ I continued. ‘And I’d never expect you to come back to Zagrum-not after the way I’ve been. But I’m here to plead with you. There’s something I’ve got to talk to you about, and then, if you tell me to, I’ll leave and never bother you again. But I see what I’ve done to mess this all up for everybody, and I think I have an idea of how to put it back together. I’ve got to talk to you.’

“She stepped back from the door. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll listen.’

“Over the next three hours I tried my best to share with her what I’d learned about the box and everything else over the prior couple of days. I think I butchered it pretty badly too,” Lou said, looking at me with a smile. “But it wasn’t so important what I said. She could tell, whatever it was I was talking about, that I meant it.

“Finally she said, ‘Okay, Lou. But I have a question: If I were to come back, how would I know that this isn’t just some temporary change? Why should I take the chance?’

“I think my shoulders hunched a bit. I didn’t know what to say. ‘That’s a good question,’ I said finally. ‘I wish I could tell you not to worry. But I know myself better than that. And so do you. That’s one of the things that I want to talk to you about. I need your help.’

“I then explained to her a rudimentary plan. ‘Two things need to happen,’ I told her. ‘First, we need to institute a process in our company where we help people to see how they’re in the box and are therefore not focusing on results. Second-and this is key, most especially for me personally-we need to institute a system of focusing on results that keeps us out of the box much more than we have been: a way of thinking, a way of measuring, a way of reporting, a way of working. For once we’re out of the box,’ I told her, ‘there are a lot of things we can do to help keep us out while going forward. We need to institute such a system at Zagrum.’

“‘Do you have some ideas about that?’ she asked.

“‘Yes. A few, but I need your help, Kate,’ I said. ‘Together we could figure out the best way to do it. No one I know would be able to do it as well as you could.’

“She sat there in thought.

“‘I’m not sure,’ she said, slowly. ‘I’m going to have to think about it. Can I call you?’

“‘Absolutely. I’ll be waiting by the phone.'”


Leadership and Self-Deception
2000 The Arbinger Institute


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.