Forget Leadership

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith

POSTED ON MAY 25, 2015

I met last week with a long time client. I've known this guy pretty much forever: He is experienced, smart, thorough and very tough. Very. He doesn't tolerate poor performance, incomplete knowledge or lame excuses. He is always blunt, and proficient with profanity. Several construction companies, and more than one EllisDon person, have found him too difficult to work with.

What I really quite like about him is that he will hand it out, but he can take it too. He will yell at you, but is quite happy if you yell right back, as long as you have your facts straight. In fact, he gets angry if you don't yell back. Several years ago, during a particularly testy phone call, I lost my temper and really let him have it. When I paused after a reasonably lengthy and possibly profane diatribe, he asked "Are you finished?" I said no, and kept going. Then he launched a rebuttal that had everything except subtlety. A couple of weeks later I ran into him at a meeting and said a friendly hello, and he was responded the same way. Somebody asked, incredulously, "Isn't this the first time you guys have talked since the big screaming match?" and we said "Yeah, so?". There are lots of stories, this is just one.

Of course, I have no other client relationships like this one; that's the point I'm struggling to make: The relationship is the entire thing. Out of that twenty year caldron of relentlessness and pressure, we've developed more than mutual respect, we are good friends. He is part of what I really enjoy about my work and my life, even when he is pounding us, even when my blood pressure spikes when he gives work to someone else and simply says 'Sharpen up'. When we met last week, before we got down to the issues at hand, we spontaneously talked about how much we've enjoyed our careers, what we've been able to accomplish, and how much there is still to do, together. Very different, very alike, two aging warriors finally forced to crack a smile. (We didn't hug, but there's still time.)

I was sort of smiling to myself about all that afterward, and it occurred to me that in my various conversations with my three sons about the life's 'important stuff', I have never talked to them about 'leadership', or even 'accomplishment', they will make those decisions themselves. But I have tried to tell them what it took me too long to learn: Relationships are everything, they are your entire life. And be careful, because you just never know. I certainly never knew.

Thanks for reading.