I will never forget the day that my bosses boss called me into a small conference room and shut the door behind us. We sat at a metal table under bright fluorescent lights. I had no idea what he wanted to talk to me about. I was sure it could not be good. This is how he started the conversation; “Chris, you are a rebel without a cause”. I thought to myself what does that even mean. I knew it wasn’t good by the serious look on his face. I understood he was not amused, but I really did not know what he was trying to say to me. I had always attributed the word rebel to someone who stood up to the opposition, a hero of sorts. There was dead silence. I thought about what he had just said and I tried to tie it back to my performance at work. After what seemed like minutes he broke the silence with these words “If you do not straighten up you are going to be fired.” Now instead of listening to what he had to say next I immediately put up my defenses. I really don’t remember all the details of what else was said in that meeting, but I do recall wondering why he was talking to me about this. Why had my direct supervisor not met with me?
It is funny how some things people say to you never leave your mind. That conversation happened over 20 years ago. As time passed I began to understand what acting like “a rebel without a cause” really meant. During that era I had earned that title by questioning all the rules, pushing the boundaries and showing little respect for authority. I felt like my skills and ability to work circles around my peers was enough to keep me employed. I relied on my productivity to out shine my poor social skills and my distrust for authority. What eventually happened is that a couple of people in key leadership positions started to take an interest in me. Instead of firing me they worked to get to know me; to try and build a real relationship with me. It was through these relationships that I began to change. I spent 10 more years at this company and when I left it was under very good terms.
History has a way of teaching us all if we will learn from it. The tables have since been turned and for over a decade now I have been the proverbial boss. I have had the chance as a leader to sit across the table from those employees who certainly qualify as “rebels without a cause”. It is in these sessions that I try and counsel the person on why this type of employee behavior is not conducive to the culture we are trying to build. Some of these conversations have yielded great fruit while others have resulted in having to terminate employment. However, I am happy to report that more times than not we are able to get past the “rebel” facade to a place of honest reflection. Sure it takes time, relationships are not built in a day, but people are worth it. There is something mystical about how one “a rebel without a cause” can speak into the lives of another suffering from the same confused outlook on life. If we take time to be vulnerable with those we lead great things will emerge. I am very fortunate that those key leaders took a chance on me. If they had not invested time in getting to understand where this behavior was coming from I would be in a very different place today.
I am very careful to think about what I say to the people I lead because I never know what they too will remember 20 years from now. I can tell you that I am still a bit of a rebel, but today the boundaries I push are less about self preservation and more about improving the lives of those I serve.
Do you have a rebel story that you think would help others? If you would like to share it, email me and I will follow this post with a compilation of stories I receive. You never know who might need to hear your experience.