Taking the lead

There’s a voice calling you. It’s usually inaudible; drowned out by the television, the buzz of florescent lighting in the office, the quiet roar of tires on the freeway. Sometimes it’s a far away whisper, other times, the voice is present and urgent. It conjures up visions that tug at your mental sleeves. This is the voice of your future and it says: find your way here.

I have called for you, Dodgers, because we are facing a crisis. The world supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is alarmingly low.
I have called for you, Dodgers, because we are facing a crisis. The world supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is alarmingly low.

I really began to take the future seriously on Christmas Day, 1999, in the departure lounge of Miami International Airport. It was 6:30 a.m. and I had been up all night at a club in South Beach with my sister and brother-in-law. The whole night had been weird to begin with. We’re in line for this club and I start to notice that there are a lot of young men around. “I hope there are some girls inside,” I remember remarking to Grant, my sister’s husband who then deadpans, “This is a gay club, Chris.” He had a history of winding me up so I figured he was having another go. But then as I study the crowd outside the doors, there really are only a couple of girls. “They play the best music here, man. This is the place,” he says. “Trust me.”

Once inside, I get separated from them in the human tide and take refuge at the bar, trying to think of a drink order that would send a big “I’m not gay” message. “Pint of Fosters,” I say, probably louder than necessary to the bartender who scolds, “We don’t serve draught beer here.” So I go with a Bud and try to strike up a conversation with an Asian-American girl at the bar, who looks at me like the whole time like I have something stuck in my teeth. After a few clipped exchanges, I venture, “You’re from Michigan”. She shoots me an annoyed look. “Is this like, your bar trick?” “No,” I say, I’m right, right?” She nods suspiciously. “If I guess the town will you buy me a beer?” “You’re like, way over-confident,” she says. “Bay City,” I point at her, without hesitation. “What, did you look at my license just now?” “No, I swear,” I say. “Stalker,” she sneers. Within 10 minutes she’s making out with some Latin looking guy she just met.

It wasn’t so remarkable that I struck out in this situation, but that within 5 minutes, I got this girl’s hometown right without even guessing. I should at this point mention that prior to our heading out for the club, the three of us had taken some chemicals which I realized were starting to kick in. I was having a kind of clarity that I hadn’t experienced before, and it was really apparent. I suddenly had this laser-like perception, whereas usually I have an inattentive macro-view of things. I was also starting to get a little paranoid at the guys checking me out. The rest of the evening seemed to race by in mostly a blur, punctuated by sudden stillness. I managed to chat with a couple of girls, achieving a similar level of engagement as with the one at the bar, and each time startled them with some personal insight that just kind of came out of me. Clearly I was weirding people out, including myself.

So by the time I catch up with my sis & Grant, it’s 5:00 a.m. and I have to get back to the hotel to get my bags and head to the airport for an early flight back to the West coast. I’m still feeling pretty sharp and energized, having had only 2 bottles of beer the whole night. By the time I arrive at the airport, I’ve still got this kind of enhanced wakefulness, which I can’t say I’ve ever had at 6:30 in the morning after a night out.

Then something remarkable happened.

I’m standing in the middle of the departure lounge and, it’s Christmas morning, so people are sitting with all their wrapped presents and fruit baskets, and I get this kind of telescopic 360 degree view of the lounge, as if from an eye-in-the-sky perspective. Then what I see is like a slow-motion film of everyone in the lounge fleeing in terror from rising waters, leaving all their bundles and presents and grabbing their children and turning to me and crying, “Where should we go?”

They were all asking me as if for some reason, I would be able to lead them to safety. This wasn’t like a broken water main, it was some kind of cataclysmic event that caught everyone by surprise, including me, but I was somehow supposed to be the one to save them.

That’s when I heard the voice. It was my voice, and it said quietly, as if not to frighten the waiting passengers, “All these gifts they’re carrying, all their material possessions will be left behind in order to save themselves. And you will help them.”

After a split-second of panic as the possibility of my flight ditching in the Atlantic sprung up, I realized this wasn’t something imminent, and that I had ample time to prepare.

I’ve shared that I was under the influence of some mind-altering substances at the time, yet the only altering seemed to be that the knob on all the background noise, all the chatter, the kaleidoscope of distractions got turned down to zero. And these image came into view.

It was then that I thought, yes; what if I’m called upon to lead? Will I know what to do? How can I prepare myself for something like this? And isn’t this just the drugs talking?

I began to realize that from a young age, people somehow saw some leadership potential in me. I was one of the smallest kids in my class, but I was usually the one in charge of choosing kickball teams at recess. I was captain of the safety patrol, leads in school plays, captain of my high school football team, a residential advisor in high school and college, sat at the head of student committees, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China, etc. I never sought out these positions, I was always chosen and agreed to lead.

I’ve never led a big organization like say, Chrysler. I’ve worked as a service provider for Chrysler and it is led by men who, were it not for legions of assistants and consultants, would frequently wear their underwear over their pants. Leadership really doesn’t depend on the size or importance of the organization, it begins with a commitment to leading one’s self, and this resonates with others.

From that moment in the airport lounge forward, I began to take the idea of leadership as a kind of calling. Not in the sense of obligation, but as in being called upon to serve. So I took up serious study of what makes a great leader. I eventually rose to the level of teaching leadership to managers of major corporations and leading a few small companies of my own. All of this has been a compelling practice for something that may or may not be waiting for me in my future. I look at it like learning a martial art; it conditions you for a situation where you hope you never have to actually use it, but you’re ready when you need to be.