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Crawling through broken glass with my hair on fire

Examples of leadership in action.

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In my never-ending quest to find content for CarWash College classes, I ran across a YouTube video I found very valuable — a Ted Talks hosted by a gentleman named Bob Davis.

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Bob’s presentation is titled, “Leadership Without Ego.” While his delivery may not have been the most dynamic, his message really hit home with me. Bob explains how the President of Avis used to rent cars at the counter once a week, and how the CEO of Southwest Airlines loaded bags onto airplanes. These two examples sparked an old memory that shaped how I view leadership in a way I’ll never forget.

When I was young manager, one of my supervisors promoted me from Assistant to Site Manager.  When a move was made in our organization, it was announced at our Thursday night dinner meetings and was effective the next day.  I was friendly with the manager I was replacing, and as we were leaving dinner that night, he informed me he had a couple of long-standing employees that would clean the trench and clear the drain lines weekly. In short, this was his way of letting me know that this was a task that was handled.

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Friday morning, I showed up at my new location ready to tackle the world as a newly minted site manager. Friday night comes along, the two employees the manager mentioned to me at dinner, started pulling grates and went to work (or so I thought). I went inside to start counting the bank, preparing deposits, etc. Shortly after, one of the employees reported that, “the trench was clean, the drains were clear, and the grating had been put back into place. “

Since they had been doing this every Friday for some time, I assumed it was done as they said and packed up to head home.

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Saturday morning dawns and it’s a perfect car wash day, low 70’s and not a cloud in the sky.  It started off well with a 1st hour of about 50 cars or so (full service). The next hour, we surpassed 70 cars and I was excited about the day’s prospects. It’s then that the reality hit me: the water in the trench was getting deeper and still rising!

After coming to grips with the fact that I had been sabotaged, I knew I had to make the dreaded phone call to inform my supervisor that the trench was flooding, and that my motor and gearbox were submerged.  It was an electric drive conveyor back then.

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My supervisor arrived on site about an hour later, assessed the situation and retrieved a ladder and a snake from his truck. He then stripped down to his skivvies and put the ladder in the pit. I insisted that I go in, as it was my fault for not inspecting the employees’ work. His response stays with me until this day, he replied, “No, I’ll go. You have stay clean to interact with our customers. I can go home from here and take a shower.”

After a few minutes, the snake pulled out a couple of towels placed there by the employees I entrusted to clean the trench.  This was their way of trying to get the manager I had replaced, to return. The boss climbed out of the pit, pulled the ladder and snake out and returned them to his truck. He then cleaned himself up as best he could (after standing neck deep in pit juice) and got dressed. At this point, I was waiting for some yelling and to get fired but neither happened. Instead, he walked over to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. He looked me directly in the eye with an expression that told me, in no uncertain terms, that nothing like this would ever happen again. It didn’t.

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From that moment on (decades ago), if that gentleman asked me to crawl through broken glass with my hair on fire, I’d start breaking bottles and dousing myself with lighter fluid. While that may sound extreme, I think you get my point. He didn’t need to get into that pit. He could have just as easily handed me the snake and pointed to the ladder, and I would have gone. Instead, he placed his ego aside and put the businesses’ best interest first.

As Bob Davis says in his talk, “Leadership is a gift, you can’t buy it, you can’t sell it, you can’t trade it—you either have it or you don’t. Leadership is the most valuable commodity on the planet, and it is the rarest commodity we have. But it’s not just leadership, it’s leadership without ego.”

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As you and your company grow, will you still be willing to get into the pit with your employees? At least figuratively? Whether you know it or not, your employees are watching. What do they see?  A leader they want to crawl through glass with their hair on fire for, or a leader in an ivory tower?

Connect with your employees on their level, show them you’re all on the same team, then cut them loose and watch what happens… Magic!


Bob Fox has 35 years’ experience in the carwash industry and is the vice president of Sonny’s Car Wash College™. Bob can be reached at [email protected]. For more information about CarWash College™ certification programs, visit CarWash College or call the registrar’s office at 1-866-492-7422.

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This content is sponsored by CarWash College. Sponsored content is authorized by the client and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Professional Carwashing & Detailing editorial team. 

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