Imagine that your job is to paint the stripes down the middle of the road. And not just any stripes, but the double yellow ones that create a powerful visual safety barrier on a well-traveled two-lane road.
Imagine that you’ve reached the line that demarcates city from county and you are told to stop painting the stripes because “That’s as far as we go.”
Imagine that you look up and see that you’ve only got another 150 yards to the bottom of the hill.
Imagine how it must feel to not finish a job that in just a few more minutes of thoughtful effort would be so easily completed.
Do you finish your workday with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? Do you go home and announce with pride, “I striped some of the road today! I made some of the road safer for the residents of that neighborhood!”
“What do you mean ‘some’?” comes the curious reply.
“Oh, well, we’re only responsible for striping the part of the road that is maintained by the county.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because the rest of the road is someone else’s responsibility.”
Look of disbelief.
Shrug of shoulders.
When we allow the red-tape of bureaucracy – be it in our government institutions or our private enterprises – to replace common sense, we also replace the qualities of autonomy and agency that make work the most noble human enterprise.
To be told that “almost” is “good enough” is an insult to the human spirit.
Path maker, there is no path.
You make the path by walking.
By walking, you make the path.
It’s quite a moment when you realize that it’s up to you.
It’s a liberating, frightening moment of recognition that the only way to create your work, your leadership, your life, is by taking the steps that you alone can take.
No matter how many loyal friends, family and colleagues you have supporting you, none of them can take the steps for you. None can provide a trail map for the path you alone must create. They can only cheer you on, provide respite when needed and encourage you to keep walking.
You must take the steps.
The box of maps is empty because we are always trying to substitute someone else’s version of a path for our own. We keep grasping at other people’s experiences as if we can borrow them, an ill-fitting pair of shoes never intended for our feet.
The box of maps will always be empty. Once we understand that, we can get busy walking.
On a flight departing 30 minutes late, one flight attendant asks for the drink coupons and checks to make sure they are valid.
The other flight attendant waves off the coupons offered to her with a playful, “Put that away.”
It’s the same airline, on the same flight, on the same day. Just two rows apart, in fact.
Is there a policy that guides these choices? Is it simply personality, one a “rule follower” and one a “free spirit”?
Do we raise an eyebrow at the inconsistency, the “unfair” treatment?
Do we celebrate Southwest’s culture of employee “ownership,” even when it’s inconsistently applied?
It’s both confusing and endlessly fascinating to observe an organizational culture this closely. An enterprise as service-oriented as Southwest – one who wants us to feel the “LUV” – only makes it a more dissected entity.
Maybe they think we don’t notice the inconsistency? Maybe they know that we do (How can you not when the “service distance” of a 737 is the equivalent of a customer walking around the Starbucks counter to stand next to the barista while ordering?) and don’t really care? And not so much a harsh “don’t care” as a subtle request that we just accept the predictable human messiness of it all.
I’m one drink coupon lighter tonight and still grateful that the aspirations of this particular organization keep me interested and aware.
I can’t think of another service organization that makes me feel that way.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.