1. Early Lessons in Leadership

When Empathy Trumps Authority

Early lessons in leadership — #1.

I’d love to tell you a story about myself as the child prodigy who led a fund drive to acquire new life-saving equipment — that I helped invent — to support the local children’s hospital. But for me, the path to leadership has been less Hollywood and more humbling. Leadership, in my experience, is about earning the trust of the people you hope to lead. Trust begins with empathy. And I had to learn this a few times over in my career.

My first gig out of college was with a big hotel chain in Cincinnati, where I was quickly put in charge of Housekeeping. It really made no sense. It was the toughest department — with purchasing responsibility and hundreds of employees — and I had the least experience of anybody. Plus, the housekeeping staff was already disgruntled; there was a lot of tension and some talk of unionizing when I took over.

Two things you should understand about this situation: First, I was a twenty-something 150-pound kid from Indiana, trying to manage a group of much older, tougher inner-city women who could easily have wiped the floor with me.  Second, it was my job to convince them that they should love their jobs — that they should be personally invested in cleaning some entitled guy’s room and creating a welcoming experience for our customers.

Lacking any real experience of my own, I had to lean into “me.” I was raised to be an empathetic person. So, I tried to put myself in their shoes.  And when I walked around in those shoes, what I saw was dismal. The Housekeeping Department room where we had our meetings every day was dirty and ugly. There were no tables, no chairs… so people who were on their feet all day had to either stand or sit on the grubby floor. The housekeeping caddies they took from room to room were old and broken. The supply cupboards were a mess. These women were not being treated with respect. So how could I ask them to show respect for the hotel and the work they were doing for our guests?

One weekend when we knew things would be slow, I called in my managerial staff and we personally fixed or replaced the caddies, cleaned the break room, organized the supplies, and brought in furniture and plants. I personally ran that giant floor polisher — actually, I think it ran me.

And when the Housekeeping staff came for our next meeting, they saw what we’d done for them and they felt the respect. They saw that they mattered. And many of those women remained my friends long after I left the hotel.  And by the way, they voted not to unionize.

That was an important lesson. I didn’t do anything profound.  I didn’t spend a lot of money. I treated people the way I wanted to be treated.  Ultimately, I guess they empathized with me, too. And those women made me successful and jump-started my career. Lesson learned.