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"Exposure and Leadership"

Immediately after World War II, my grandmother, Ella, ran the Red Wing Restaurant on North Clinton Ave. at the corner of Avenue D in Rochester, NY. That same intersection was recently identified as the epicenter of heroin activity in our inner city.

A few days ago, I took a drive down there in the late morning. Out of curiosity, I popped into the building where Gramma’s restaurant once stood. Now, it’s Felix’s Barber Shop, a bustling neighborhood place with six barbers. Felix himself yelled a hearty greeting to me in Spanish. I let him know that I had a long connection to the area and had come to look around. I stood with him as he cut hair, and told him the story of The Red Wing.

Photograph of Ella Engels, 1912

Ella Bridget Engels, (1891-1983)

He enjoyed hearing that the spot where he charges $20 for a haircut once sold hamburgers for 25 cents. “Eighty burgers for the price of a cut!” he laughed, then shrugged. “Wow, times change.”

From there, I visited the Hickey-Freeman Factory outlet across Avenue D, where I looked at some well-tailored suits running $1,200 apiece. Immigrant labor still crafts the clothing there, as it has since 1912.

A boarded-up house

I continued to explore the neighborhood. Crossing Clinton Ave., I stopped and stared at a boarded-up house with tattered siding and a cracked stone foundation. I surveyed its large yard, admiring the mature trees.

A friendly voice called out, “You going to tear this place down?”

I walked over to an adjacent driveway and introduced myself to a middle-aged man named Enrique. He told me the abandoned house is where people go to shoot up. “They do it in back,” he said, pointing to a dilapidated porch. “This is a rough place, let me tell you. Lots of ODs (overdoses). The police are at this house every night, trying to bust people. But nobody bothers me because they respect me and they know who I am.”

We chatted for about 15 minutes.

As we parted, he offered some advice: “Don’t move here,” he warned. “Look at you. People know you got money. You leave for work in the morning, and when you return, everything in your house will be gone.”

I shook hands with Enrique and explored the area around that porch. On the ground, I saw debris – broken glass, nails, empty water bottles, used condoms, and hypodermic needles. Lots of needles. I bent down and stared at the discarded needles and thought about the users.

The truth is, I was in a bit of a trance.

I had never really seen with my own eyes anything like this.

Lifelong exploring

As a youngster, I loved exploring. My boyhood home on Black Creek, just outside of Rochester, introduced me to polliwogs, geese, dense forests and swimming holes. I snagged rock bass, swung from trees on ropes, and used the creek as a winter hockey rink.

When I was older, I continued to explore beyond my local area. I traveled to the Adirondack Mountains for rock-hopping in wilderness streams, and hiking the High Peaks. Nature became my discovery zone.

As an adult, I expanded my discovery zone to include other regions and cultures. The coastal desert of Peru. The rice paddies of rural Bangladesh. The slums of Haiti. The cathedrals of Italy. I took it all in, eager to stretch my awareness of “different realities.”

I came to see that my reality is only one kind of reality. In my travels, I observed again and again that the reality of others is no less real to them than my own is to me.

That belief stuck, planting the desire to expose myself to more experiences.

Attica Prison

In my 30s and 40s, I ventured to Attica Prison, where I participated monthly in a discussion group with long-term felons. Those visits opened my ears to stories of stupidity, pain, anger, remorse and grief.

My experiences inside a maximum security prison got me thinking about my own mistakes, and how the pure luck of having my family, citizenship, social network and skin color had given me so many advantages and had kept me buoyed on top of the water, instead of under it.

As a white guy inside a state prison, I never quite got used to being surrounded by so many people of color. I tried my best to stay poised and helpful during those visits. But I was usually preoccupied with what they were thinking of me. I tried looking “put together,” but the prisoners wouldn’t have it. They questioned me, and my insecurities popped up.

I was exposed.

That’s how I felt on Clinton Avenue, looking at the needles.

I didn’t know that place, I didn’t belong there. I was nervous about being approached, robbed, shot. I had come for a nostalgic peak at my Gramma’s restaurant, and I found it.

But I also found more: awareness that my life – despite lots of exploration - has been sanitized and protected from some of the harsh realities close to home.

High-status leaders

For three decades, I’ve worked with high-status leaders who run businesses and not-for-profit organizations.

What they get from me is presence, listening and questions. They use our interactions to find what they want: Clarity, connection and courage for their leadership and parenting.

The questions I ask my clients are personal and challenging, the way important questions tend to be:

“What’s really going on here?”

“What might you be running away from?”

“Who’s the toughest person for you to deal with right now?”

Those questions come from my own past exposures, from the discomfort of difference, and the embarrassment of having my narrow beliefs revealed to others. And from what purposeful reflection has helped me clarify.

Exposure and leadership

Over the years, I have come to realize that my explorations and exposure trigger reflection, and reflection produces questions. Questions that shape a leader’s thinking and approach.

Getting comfortable with exposure has made a big difference in my leadership. It’s rescued me from the trap of cocksure ignorance and half-baked beliefs.

Exposure to new people and situations has helped me to humble down in the face of “different realities,” and to offer something to my clients and children that carries depth, and perhaps a bit of “startle.”

When a leader asks me, “What can I do to improve,” it’s not uncommon for me to recommend exposure to truly different realities, followed by time for reflection.

Why don’t they teach this in business school?

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