I was dressed in a suit when I got the call to offload a semi truck in our new distribution center. The trucker arrived 3 days earlier than expected and our warehouse man was in the hospital.

I went back to the hotel and changed into old tennis shoes, a ratty pair of jeans, and a hoodie then made my way to our building. I jumped out of my vehicle and ran over to the trucker and promptly lost the only key I had to the facility.  An atypical May snowstorm deposited two inches of snowy mush so I slogged around looking for the missing key, but to no avail.

After a few phone calls and longer delays than it takes congress to make a decision, I finally managed to get into the building and crawl up on the same forklift Noah used to load the ark.

Because of my construction background, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on backhoes, bobcats, high-loaders, bulldozers and the occasional forklift. There is no standardized, “gas-pedal-is-on-the-right-and-the-clutch-is-on-the-left-and-the-brake-is-in-the-middle” format for this kind of machinery.  Nope, it’s more of a mix-and-match collection so each machine requires learning new locations of levels, pedals, and eject-buttons.

To add further excitement, the forklift had no brakes.  A forklift without brakes is like riding a bicycle without handlebars; or baking a cake without a temperature indicator; or a nurse giving a shot without a syringe.  You can do it, but you have to be pretty darn inventive to get it done.

Combine a rookie forklift driver with a forklift more dysfunctional than the Kardashians and you have either a recipe for disaster or slapstick comedy. I chose comedy.

I’d already used up any charm I had to keep the trucker amused after my ridiculous delays. I apologized profusely, offered him my firstborn and/or donuts and coffee but nothing wiped the growl off his countenance.

After two hours of pre-stress activity, the real stress began when I began unloading the truck.  I admitted I was a novice and gingerly approached the truck to unload it. Since it was his truck, he had an opinion about how to unload it that resulted in minimal damage to the truck, dismemberment of bystanders, or loss of life.

After I got over my initial intimidation at the coarseness of which he gave direction, criticism, and questions about my heritage, I began to notice the lessons I was learning about leadership.

 Here’s are the leadership lessons I learned from a growly trucker:

      •  After initial instruction, walk away and let them do their job – the first few pallets were nerve racking because he was barking at me, but when he disappeared (he finally caved in for the coffee and donuts) I settled down and started doing much better
      • Compliment before you criticize – it took me forever to unload the truck and he would check on me. Sometimes he’d compliment me and then give me some criticism, then other times he led with the criticism. His effect was far more positive on me if he complimented first, then offered critique
      • Be patient- he was growly about technique, not about time. He wanted it done right (and me not drive the forklift through the side of his truck)
      • Laugh- Near the end, he laughed at a self-deprecating remark I made comparing me to a little old lady peering between the steering wheel and the dashboard.  His response was affirmation.

I finally got his truck unloaded.

I have some new leadership techniques in my pocket.

We have a better forklift now- I’m sure the trucker called our founder and said, “Look, you have to get a new forklift or that idiot is going to kill himself.”

When he left, he asked what I usually do and I told him I was a Vice President in the company.

Chuckling, he said, “You better keep your day job.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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*If you are interested in my writings about hunger, please check out this week’s blog on Universities Fighting World Hunger’s website: Senator Bob Dole – A Hunger Fighter You Should Know.

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