By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

In The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus, we describe how a true servant leader recognizes that each human being is unique, and if we want to contribute to a person's development, we have to build a relationship with them that is intimate enough to illuminate their uniqueness. Here's a true story that illustrates the value of intimacy in leadership.

The young man — let's call him Rick — was an editor of one of the weekly newspapers in a group our company had purchased. His paper was located in a promising community about 25 miles from the home plant. It was his first job out of journalism school, and he had been at his post about three years. He had a wife and a young baby boy. The publisher who sold us the operation some months earlier had said it was about time for the young editor to move on because the company could pay only so much for the job he was doing, and soon he would be expecting a raise that the paper could not afford.

Our management philosophy was different. We valued a stable workforce of people who could grow and advance with us. And frankly, we saw a lot more upside to the newspaper Rick was running if we could develop some continuity and help him grow on the job. Rick was no superstar. But neither was he a prima donna. I didn't know him well enough to know if his pace was a detriment or a gift — if he was plodding or just very conscientious — but he definitely had room to grow. His childhood had included a host of difficulties, but he had found his way to college and had persevered there. We were fairly confident he had the aptitude to grow if we conditioned and cultivated the soil around him properly.

Our publishing routine had him coming to the home plant to produce his paper one day a week. But my plan was to spend a good deal of time with him in the community he was working in to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. As that relationship grew, I hoped to help him further develop his skills, taste greater achievement and become more enthusiastic about and committed to his work. I was only a few years older, which made spending time with him an easy fit. But I had a lot more experience owing to several years of 60 hour work weeks in a much larger, faster-paced environment with a lot of fine mentors on hand. I had high hopes that a little mentoring on my part would yield huge dividends in his development.

We bought a home only a few blocks from the plant, so I generally visited the office to do some work every day of the week. Suddenly, after a few months of seeing Rick only on Tuesdays, he started showing up at the home plant on Saturdays and Sundays. He didn't put in full days, but he would be in the plant for several hours, mostly puttering with things that in the past he had handled on Tuesday visits. At first, I felt good about his commitment to work. I even flattered myself that the opportunity to work for a new company with higher aspirations was inspiring him to greater diligence and commitment.

But I also had the sense that "there was something wrong with this picture." The work he was doing on weekends wasn't the result of a growing workload with his paper. He wasn't selling more ads. He wasn't producing more feature stories. He wasn't in the darkroom indulging a passion for great photography.

Mostly he was just puttering as I had seen him do on his Tuesday visits. From time to time on the weekend I'd strike up a conversation, trying to get to know him better, acknowledging his sacrifice of time with his family, and attempting to figure out why he suddenly felt the urge to show up for weekend work 25 miles from his home base.

Rick's newfound energy and apparent devotion brought him back to the plant on weekends for a month or so before I felt it appropriate to push a little about his motivations and expectations. Was he overwhelmed? Was he concerned about his job or his performance? Was he just becoming more committed to his work? I couldn't determine any of that without a conversation. I kept it casual, but I began to dig as any seasoned reporter knows how to do.

At first he was very non-committal, as if the wind was blowing him up to the plant again and again. But as we visited more and he continued to putter, he suddenly broke down and began to cry. He was, I could tell, completely overwhelmed. I instantly assumed it was due to the demands of his job and our higher aspirations. But I was sadly mistaken. As I reassured him that he shouldn't feel foolish and that I did care for him, he gradually began to share his reality with me.

He started by describing the large and growing tensions between himself and his wife. I assumed his problem was a marital one, but I kept listening and drawing him out. Finally he got to the real problem — which he had been avoiding because it was almost too painful for him to acknowledge. His infant son had been diagnosed with a chronic condition. It could be treated with regular medication. But the medication was expensive — equivalent to 25 or 30 percent of his take home pay — and the company's health insurance plan wouldn't cover any of the cost. He didn't know what to do. When the words finally came, they flowed in a torrent of tears and helplessness.

He wondered about finding a different job with a better health insurance plan. But he worried that his son's precondition wouldn't be covered. He wondered where he would find a job or when he would even have time to look. He hadn't slept well since being sliced with the two-edged sword of his son's chronic health problem and the insurance company's self-declared immunity.

He and his wife were both on edge, and each wondered in great guilt if somehow the other might be the cause of their son's problem. Instead of supporting one another in their despair, they argued incessantly.

He was driving up to the plant on Saturdays and Sundays to escape the helplessness and hostility of his home. On the drives, he confessed, he had more than once wondered if his wife and son would be better off if he veered from the road and hit a tree.

I was overwhelmed. But I tried to keep the focus on him and his difficulties, and I saw one ray of hope he did not see. I knew the insurance we had was a sound plan, and I suspected that it ought to be covering his son's medication. I listened to him express all of his pain, frustration, anger, helplessness and hopelessness. Then because he was embarrassed by his outburst, I reassured him that I thought more of him — not less — because of his deep concerns for his family. He declined my offer to find him counseling and assured me that he had decided firmly against suicide. But he accepted my offer to have my wife, who handled our insurance issues, check with the insurance company about its coverage, and for me to get back to him on Tuesday when he returned to the plant.

The story's end is an easy and happy one. The insurance company did cover his son's medication. It didn't cover ordinary prescriptions, which few plans did in those days. But it did cover treatment for serious chronic maladies, and his son's medication met the test. The cross of helplessness was lifted from Rick's shoulders. Looking back, the boy's doctor or staff could have done a better job of describing the problem to the insurance company. And the young editor could have spared himself more than a month of unspeakable agony by simply coming to us with his problem. But the biggest lessons to be taken from the incident, for me, were two:

  • the danger of simply accepting huge changes in behavior, especially when they seem to benefit us; and,
  • the power of intimacy to solve complex problems.

Rick didn't say with us forever. But he grew tremendously on the job and the paper grew with him for another year or two. Then he came to me and told me that in the back of his mind he had always wanted to be a teacher. In fact, he had obtained all the requirements while in college. But he lacked the confidence to stand in front of a classroom of diffident teens then, so he took a newspaper job. Recently, however, his high school alma mater had contacted him about needing a journalism teacher and publications advisor.

Administrators and faculty members he respected had assured him that he would do fine and they would be there to help him over any rough spots in the transition. The pay and benefits were better, and he would have summers to spend with his wife, son and newborn daughter. Would I write him a recommendation?

I was honored to be asked and pleased that he had an opportunity to fulfill an important dream. We found a person to take his place and the transition went smoothly. In a few months, he was calling to see if we would print the school newspaper. And he continued to teach for as long as he lived, apparently quite happy with the path he had chosen.

Copyright © 2009 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site:

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