During my first job as a Manufacturing Engineer for a small company in Ohio, one of the plant foremen taught me a great lesson. One day, I accompanied him to the attic of the plant to find a cataloged tool; I asked him how we would find these tools the day he retired. He brought a glass of water and asked me to stick my finger in it; in a few seconds he asked me to remove the finger from the glass. He then asked if I saw a hole in the water; “if you didn’t leave a hole in the water, you are dispensable!” said Al, roaring with laughter.
This lesson has had a great impact in the way I have made decisions in the course of both my personal and professional life. While we would all like to believe that we are somehow indispensible at work, with friends, or even with family, at the end of the day, we are all replaceable, in one form or another. Someone will take our place one day, just like the water that moves into the hole in the glass!
Some twenty five years ago, the day I lay my father down in his grave, I thought that that there would be such a void in our lives that we may never be able to move forward. But our lives did move forward; on that day, my mother single handedly assumed the dual role of a father and a mother and raised both me and my sister. Yes, it’s been tough at times, and yes, we still miss his presence in our lives; but our worlds kept moving.
Having held at least nine different roles in the last 18 years of my career, it has not escaped me that at the workplace this transition happens even faster. I have noticed highly successful leaders move on from their roles and, in relatively short time, are replaced by new leaders and the organization moves ahead.
Instead of feeling conflicted about this conundrum, maybe the lesson is to actually strive for quick dispensability; as parents, this means helping our children to quickly become independent and to acknowledge our role change from “I tell, you listen” mode, to more a balanced, caring-sharing, friendship; at the workplace, maybe we need to strive for rapid obsolescence and eventual re-invention of our own roles.
For young leaders, the first step towards becoming dispensable is striving for transparency of all our actions and sharing information generously. There was a time when managers considered “Information as a source of power”. In today’s wired world, where one may Google or Wiki just about everything, we should instead use the mantra of “no-holds-barred” information sharing. We have to passionately adapt to the role of a teacher in all our work activities.
One of my favorite past times is watching the waves of the blue Atlantic, right off the Hillsboro inlet, constantly lapping away on the beaches of Lighthouse Point.
When you watch the nimble motion of these wonderfully dynamic waves, one has to wonder if life is meant to be more like the ocean: dynamic and constantly in motion. If you notice carefully, new sand arrives at every moment and the ocean washes away old sand in a zest to re-cycle it back to some other coast on another day. The ocean re-invents itself with the changing weather and helps the coast re-invigorate its boundaries.
Just like the lesson from the foreman from my first job, maybe the lesson is to constantly re-invent ourselves and to develop processes, institutions and leaders who survive fine without us – just like the ocean: innumerable, constant, high and low, in rain or shine.