Beer, Safeway, and Midnight

Lead by example.  I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase once or twice. 

For me, the first real instance I can recall that it became meaningful was when I was a junior at The University of Texas at Austin.  Among many student activities I was involved with, I was particularly engrossed with movies.  I joined the Film Committee of the Texas Union (student center).  We got to pick the movies, got discounts, and got to talk about movies a lot (usually over libations in the Cactus Café or Tavern). 

My junior year I was the Chairman of the Film Committee.  It was a great experience and I really had a wonderful committee.  I concurrently served as a board member of the Texas Union Program Council (TUPC)—comprised of all the committee leaders. 

At this same time in UT-Austin history, there was no student government as it had become such a joke that it was abolished. Because of the void this created for the university administration, they quickly turned to other organizations for insight into the student population.  The Texas Union was probably one of the few, campus-wide organizations and they, therefore, closely listened to their leaders.

The TUPC board I was on was led by a wonderful leader, Darren Walker.  I admired his ability to remain cool, forthright, and fair even when things became tough and controversial.  Likewise, he was the kind of guy you could trust implicitly.  Today he continues to use these qualities at the Ford Foundation.

In the spring of 1982, I considered running for the TUPC board chairman as Darren was graduating.  I was encouraged to do so by many of my board colleagues.  So I thought it was wise to chat with Darren before making my decision.

We met for lunch near campus and I quickly asked him about his experience as chairman.  He simply said “You can’t buy beer at midnight in Safeway in your dirty, beat-up shorts and t-shirt”. 

I remember laughing.  He wasn’t laughing.

He went on to say that as board chairman you were a student leader 24 hours a day, particularly while in Austin.  You could not have a lapse in judgment—not even a perceived lapse in judgment. 

He relayed a story where he was “caught” buying beer and munchies at midnight at Safeway and that he looked quite the sight!  He’d been working all day and wasn’t at his best.  He said he knew he looked like a bum—like a college partier on a bender who needed more beer.

Ironically, the beer wasn’t for him.  But that didn’t matter.

It was all about perception. 

He counseled me that if I wanted to take the board chairmanship I had to become comfortable with a public life—in deeds, words, and perceptions.  He continued to underscore that you couldn’t “shut off” your public life just because you were off-campus or at a private place.  No, you were leading all the time.

And he ended by saying that if you don’t understand this “life in the fishbowl” and self-monitor what you do and say, then you automatically erode your credibility and trustworthiness.  You do so with the administration, fellow students, and even the Austin public.

Wow, I didn’t expect to hear this from him that day.  I expected to hear about politics, meetings, juggling invitations, etc. 

As I remember this story often, I am continually reminded that it has powerful lessons for all leaders. 

“You can’t buy beer at midnight in Safeway in your dirty, beat-up shorts and t-shirt”.

As a leader, people watch and listen to you.  They do so because they trust and respect you—your thoughts, behaviors, advice—and especially your judgment. 

And if, through your own poor judgment, you do something to harm or lose their trust and respect, you’re no longer a leader.

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