A Leader Leads

Every team needs a good leader. Leaders inspire courage and strength and bring out the best in us. Without leaders, where would the rest of us be? The Indian independence movement had Gandhi. Women have Oprah. Stupid people have Sarah Palin. And the chop shop had Glen. Being the circus it was, he was perfect as part-ringleader, part-clown. He was five feet long in both height and circumference. His ears stuck out to the side, and his generous cheeks and many chins framed a smile that, when it came, held the joy of a ten-year-old boy. He looked exactly like Shrek.

Glen ran away from home in Ohio when he was 16. He lived on the streets of Chicago for a few years. When he grew tired of being regularly robbed and beaten up while sleeping, he jumped a boxcar train (yes, like a hobo from the 1940s), and saw America, one mail depot at a time. Eventually he returned to Ohio where for a couple decades he sold anything and everything door-to-door. Bibles, vacuums, knives, windows and siding. At our office, he wore a coat and tie every day, even though both were worn and outdated and stretched beyond reason. But at his core, what guided him in life, were the most holy tenets of door-to-door sales:

1. Everyone is a sucker.

2. The word No is only and always a precursor to the word Yes.

3. What you sell doesn’t matter, but only how you sell it.

4. Make your pitch and shut the hell up. Whoever speaks first loses.

5. Don’t leave anyone’s home without the check.

He used these rules that were made for knife salesmen and applied them to the sales of financial instruments. He was relentless and vicious, but he was mostly ineffective. It’s not that we didn’t sell the hell out of the stuff. We did. But it was the force of the market, the lowering rates and the spiking home prices that drove the business. And the rules of his game were no doubt used by most of the people in the chop shop. But in reality, we succeeded despite him. The reason for his general failure, which he would probably never admit, was that behind his gruff exterior and no-bullshit-rhetoric was a soft and sad and endlessly sweet man who would scold you for not ripping someone off and then cry for doing so once you’ve left the room. Our fearless leader was sensitive, and I loved him for that. It reminded me—after seeing someone give two months’ salary to save $63 on their monthly mortgage payment or after hanging up on someone who wouldn’t stop calling me even though I told them a hundred times that there was no hope and they would be losing their home—that I was human, too.

I’d see him on my way out of the office each night sitting at his desk. Usually I’d keep walking, ready to get out of that disgusting place. But sometimes I’d sit with him, knowing he had nowhere to go or no one to go with. One of those nights, he was sitting at his desk, staring at the computer he barely knew how to use. A bottle of Glenlivet looked on with him from its perch on his lap. He saw me looking at it.

“Tastes like crap,” he said. “But they say it’s the best. I was always a Wild Turkey guy.” He then went on to explain to me why bourbon is a real man’s drink, and scotch is for homosexuals. Pretty ignorant stuff, but vintage Glen.

He seemed down, and I asked him why. He told me about a client he had seen that day. The woman was a seventy-three-year-old widow. She lived on a small pension from a lifetime of loyalty to her city job and a meager social security check. She was behind on her mortgage, and the lender was looking to take her home. She had nowhere to go and no one to help her. And then came Glen to the rescue.

He surmised that the last mortgage broker she had had the bad fortune of running into had put her into a loan that allowed her to make payments that were so low it created a negative equity in her home. She signed the papers, and she should have read them. We’re all responsible for ourselves. But nevertheless, she was now in a bad spot. She owned more than her house was worth. She should have just walked away. It would have been her best move. But Glen was there to sell, and that’s what he did. He found a way to save her house, much to her financial detriment. And a woman in her stage of life had more use for money than she did for a 30-year fixed mortgage that would cost her ten times what she probably paid for the dump 30 years earlier.

Glen laid out her only option, which included a fee slightly more than $10,000—paid for by the new lender who would lock her into a long-term commitment at an above-market rate. He said his peace, and then he just sat there. She looked back and him, probably knowing that the deal sucked. But it was the house her husband had bought for her, the one in which she lost pregnancy after pregnancy, the only one she ever knew. She needed him to stand up and say Don’t do this! or Forget about this place! But he didn’t. It would have broken every rule about sales that he lived by.

After ten long minutes of utter silence, she reached for the pen and signed the paperwork. Glen then left her home, came to the office, and found himself sitting with me, recanting this tale. He knew what I thought. It was the same thing you’re probably thinking. Without saying a word, I stood and started to walk out of the office. Before I reached the door, he said, “I couldn’t not do it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I ask you guys to do the same thing every day. What kind of leader would I be if I didn’t?”

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One Comment on “A Leader Leads”

  1. Michael Pierce says:

    There”s a lesson to be learned here about leadership. It’s like understanding that the leadership books stress the need for leaders to actually lead by example, but failing to read the part about providing the moral and “spiritual” reason for making others want to actually follow you. It’s tough to be considered a leader when no one is following you.


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