Have you ever been fired from a job? If so, you know it takes a lot or a pretty big offense. If you have been fired, but you haven’t made a habit out of it, those moments are likely etched into your memory forever. The day I got fired changed my life, and my ability to lead forever.
As a young man, I was a follower. I had a strong moral compass instilled in me by my parents and family, but I did plenty of things that I knew were wrong. Why? Because it was easier to go along with my friends and not stand out than do what was right. I was mean to people that didn’t deserve it. Why? Because it was nice to have people laugh at those I was making fun of instead of laughing at me. I did what made others happy without considering if it was best for me. Why? Because I had no sense of direction and figured the best way to keep people happy was to do what I thought they wanted.
From grades K-8, I attended a school that might have had 200 kids at its height. I was a medium fish in a small pond. I was smart for my class, but I cried when I didn’t know the answers. I was a decent athlete, but didn’t have to work or want to work harder to be one of the best in the school. I volunteered for things I was asked to do, but I never went out of my way to help anyone. In high school, I made sure to always sit in the back of the class and say as little as possible. I got average grades and finished in the bottom half of my graduating class. I graduated with over 200 people in my class, and most to this day would not know me or remember me. I started working at the age of 16, but I called off sick to hang out with friends and a number of times I accidentally overslept. I only applied to one college and chose the easiest major I could. I had to repeat classes a couple of times because I never studied. I interviewed for some random jobs that were not related to anything I studied in school, and I ended up quitting my first two professional jobs within 14 months of graduating.
Long story short, I don’t think anyone from my past, or my family would have ever pegged me for a future leader. I hated confrontation, unless it was with my family. I usually just said yes to things to avoid disappointing people, or I would say no and then completely avoid the person in the future. I lived in constant fear of failure and embarrassment, so I just played things safe. Even the things I really loved doing, I always wanted to be the sidekick and never out in front. Whether it was broadcasting sporting events, dee-jaying, or coaching, I would always go along with others ideas, but I would never put myself in the spotlight out front.
I never wanted to subject myself to criticism. If someone didn’t like me, I would sit and think about it for days. I still do the same thing when I know someone is upset with me today! The best way to avoid criticism was to avoid people of authority. It was only natural to me that I should shift careers and become a teacher. That way I would have 120 people every day that had to do what I said, and all I had to do was keep them happy and learning to avoid criticism from any form of authority. However, it was the day I was fired from my first professional job that helped make me a good teacher and future leader.
I guess some elements of being a leader and somewhat fearless had always been there prior to becoming a teacher, but they were not guided in the best ways and didn’t force any consequences upon me. In high school, I raged to my history teacher when the school announced it was going to select two students to attend a leadership summit by Senator Richard Lugar. I claimed it was unfair because they were just going to pick the two smartest kids, not those who wanted to lead. The school made us write an essay stating why we wanted to go, and I was chosen to attend; most likely it was just to keep me from complaining any further. Once I was there, I realized I was quickly swimming in the wrong pool of academic youth leaders, so I just kept to myself until the conference was over. Quickly, I went back to my more subtle rebel ways of winning a bet by wearing shorts with no socks to school every day for an entire school year. That was my idea of standing out.
While in college at Purdue, I stood out by rooting for a rival school that I had grown up as a fan of over my current school. It made me a target, but the more people pushed against me, the more I dug in. Pushing my rebellious ways even further, I was known in college for ‘disappearing.’ It wasn’t uncommon for me to take random trips to other colleges or towns without telling those around me where I was going. Heck, a lot of times I just got in the car and figured I would just find my location by heading in the right direction and paying attention to road signs. I didn’t bother with maps or directions, just go and figure it out.
The people closest to me wouldn’t have a clue where I was for hours, sometimes days. Oh, how I miss the days without cell phones! One summer drove to Wrigley Field with a friend without either of us ever having driven in Chicago, let alone having any map or idea where the actual ballpark was. I did the same thing in Milwaukee and Cincinnati while in college. I’ll just figure it out, or quite possibly die trying. I guess that takes leadership; intiative, at the very least. Emboldened by my spontaneity, I began taking more chances, or making leadership type moves. One of my foolish decisions would provide me with the greatest lesson I learned in my life. One that started to shape me as a leader.
While working at my first job, I was upset with the training, or lack thereof, I was receiving while in Detroit. I was working in sales for a steel company and was deployed throughout the midwest for a couple months of on-the-job training. I hadn’t been home in weeks, so I just decided that I was going to leave early on a Friday. Nobody had checked in with our trainee group in the morning, so who would care if I didn’t come back from lunch? I came home and had a great weekend, and quite honestly, I didn’t think much about my actions when I returned to work on Monday. However, unlike every other morning where we were left to read the paper and do crossword puzzles for hours alone in a conference room, I was greeted by one of my supervisors. He inquired where I was on Friday afternoon, and I told him that I left because nobody had given us anything to do. Instead of leaving it there, I pushed forward and said that this was the case every day. I could see his face tightening right before he told me I was fired.
Twenty two years old, and I was fired from my first professional job. But, there was one problem, I refused to be fired. I told this guy that he wasn’t my boss and that he couldn’t fire me. That only enraged him more, but I doubled down and told him he didn’t have the authority to fire me. Long story short, I was right! After a few heated phone calls to headquarters, Mr. Wilson had to admit that he indeed did not have the authority to fire me, but he wasn’t going to leave without lecturing me. I, the twenty two year-old smug college kid, was going to get grilled by the 40 year sales veteran. I don’t remember everything he said that day, but one thing has stuck with me forever. During his heated tirade, he informed me that it would never matter what I did during the rest of my time with the company, PERCEPTION WAS REALITY! It wouldn’t matter if I turned out to be a great, responsible employee, I would always be perceived as an arrogant, entitled, prick by everyone.
I was a lot of things in the fall of 1999, but those three adjectives were nothing close to my character and how people viewed me. However, that was how Mr. Wilson and many others in that office viewed me, and nothing else I did would matter or change that. My bold move would result in me getting the most valuable lesson ever. Now, it didn’t impact me right away. In fact, when I left the company a month or so later I wrote a scathing resignation letter with his name prominently displayed throughout. I hated that man. I blamed him and others for being jobless six months after I graduated from college, but I couldn’t get his words out of my head.
My next job took me to St. Louis. Another sales position that I didn’t love, but it took me back home and put some good money in my pockets. However, this time I remembered that perception was reality. I made sure to be one of the first ones in the office each day. I turned in my communication log without asking, and I made sure that every business in my territory that needed a copier, fax machine, or printer had my business card. I wasn’t very good at my job, but the people I worked with thought I was. I pitched in to help others on my team without asking. I made sure to show up at social gatherings after work. Even though my sales slumped, my boss loved me. Dammit, if Mr. Wilson wasn’t right.
Eventually, I moved back home to pursue my teaching degree and support my soon to be wife that had already begun her career. I went back to work at Martin’s, but this time I wasn’t going to be calling off or goofing around, like I had in the past. Just like before, I was perceived by my new manager as a leader and dependable worker. If only Mr. Wilson could see me now, I thought.
Fast forward to my teaching career, and the entire first year was all about faking it while I made it. My entire existence revolved around trying not to let my administration or students know that I was feeling completely overwhelmed, inept, and doubting whether or not I had made the right career choice. Yet, I was determined not to quit and look at facing another career change, but I really thought I made a mistake getting into teaching. I couldn’t let my wife down, and I was working my second job at Martin’s just to make ends meet financially. But there was Mr. Wilson in my head again, if I leave my teaching job, everyone will perceive me as a consistent quitter. Someone who walks away when things get tough. Mike Gallo, the guy who can’t handle adversity.
I knew that wasn’t true, but perception was reality. It would never matter who I was, everyone that I worked with and casual acquaintances would label me in their minds based off the perception I had given them. I’m not a quitter, and that’s not how I was going to be viewed.
I stuck out my first year of teaching, and my second year was a little better. By my third year, I had a great group of students and really started to find my groove as a teacher. Next thing I know, I’m sharing Mr. Wilson’s words with my students. I would randomly ask students if they were a jerk. They would look at me with a strange look on their face, and then I would tell them that based off what I saw them doing I just assumed that’s who they were as a person all of the time. Maybe it was sophomoric, but I really believe it worked. I really think one of my strengths as a teacher became explaining to my students how your actions impacted others. It worked because I was a history teacher. Cause/effect is just kind of my thing.
So, my point in all of this is to always be aware of your actions. Sometimes I will go somewhere and think to myself how I’ve been alive nearly 46 years, and this is my first, and likely only encounter with a person during each of our time on earth. How do I want them to remember me? Even when things don’t go my way and I am upset, I stop before I speak because I want people to perceive me as someone that is always respectful. In my career, I work hard to try and ensure that my staff and co-workers view me as dependable, selfless, and caring. Others in my life may not share that perception, but their reality is different than my co-workers. Show up early, stay a little later, treat EVERYONE that you interact with like they’re the boss; if you don’t have anything to do at work, find something to challenge yourself with. If you’re the type of employee that complains about everything without taking any action, guess how you’re going to be perceived by everyone? Even if you’re super efficient and walking around without a care in the world talking to everyone else at work, how do you think your boss is going to perceive you? What reality are you creating if anytime you face adversity you are rude to someone?
While how you are perceived to others is more imporant to some than others, your actions impact everyone. Mr. Wilson’s words changed the trajectory of my career and how I interact with everyone around me. Maybe I would have gotten where I am now without his failed attempt to fire me, but I often wonder where I would be without his fateful words ringing in my ears. I often wonder how others perceive me, but I don’t dwell on it because I know it is based on my actions. I cannot control how I am perceived, but I can always control my actions. The people in your life outside of your family and closest friends base their entire perception of you based off of your actions and interactions with them. That is their reality. I remind myself of that every day as a leader and a coach, and I hope that people don’t view me as an arrogant, entitled, prick like Mr. Wilson. I wish he could see me now, as a servant leader. He would probably be shocked to find out where I am in life, and I know it would take a lot of time and undoing to change his perception of me. However, without him I still might be an arrogant, entitled, prick.