It had been a couple of intense weeks working to get a few projects off the ground, when I received an email that caused a blue screen.
Now, what was in the email is not important; but let’s just say it constituted the straw that broke the stressed-out camel’s back. What is important to our story is that the blue screen occurred not to my computer, but to my brain, as all proper functioning seized up like an engine out of oil.
Not being of sound mind to press forward at that moment, I called Nancy.
“I just received the spreadsheet I was waiting for but it’s a big jumble of stuff, and I really can’t move forward with it because it’s a big jumble, and I have to move forward because we have to get this done, but I’ve got this big jumble,” I mumbled with minimal coherence.
“Well, send it to me and I’ll clean it up,” she said calmly.
“What? You think you can? I mean, did I mention it’s a big jumble?” I asked.
“I’m great at cleaning up jumbles, and I kind of like it,” she said.
“Uh, ok. Thanks,” I said.
And with that, I checked out and went to lunch, feeling some weight lifted from my shoulders. Then, about an hour later, Nancy sent me back the information, and what had been a big jumble was, to my astonishment, a jumble no more.
“How the heck did you do that?” I asked? “And so fast.”
“Like I said, I’m good with that kind of stuff,” she repeated.
As I look back to my blue screen moment, I can see it was a critical point at which I was either going to get back on track or go to pieces. I can see that receiving the assistance I needed at that moment was important, it mattered, and its positive effects were cumulative, like compound interest.
Reflecting on that moment and a few others like it, I realize that I would not be where I am — and I think, in general, leaders who have achieved any degree of success would not be where they are — if they were not saved on occasion by those whom they lead. And I think this is an extremely important concept to appreciate.
We, as leaders, need to stand strong 99 percent of the time. We need to be the ones who provide the support, who steady the troops, who lead the way and lead from the front. But no leader who serves for any length of time in any worthy endeavor is impervious to the occasional blue screening. A few historical cases in point:
During the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the US Armies, broke down and wept in his tent after a day of especially frightful losses.
The unparalleled Civil War historian Shelby Foote wrote:
“Grant the general had many qualities but he had a thing that’s very necessary for a great general. He had what they call ‘four o’clock in the morning courage.’ You could wake him up at four o’clock in the morning and tell him they had just turned his right flank and he would be as cool as a cucumber. Grant, after that first night in the Wilderness, went to his tent, broke down, and cried very hard. Some of the staff members said they’d never seen a man so unstrung. Well, he didn’t cry until the battle was over, and he wasn’t crying when it began again the next day. It just shows you the tension that he lived with without letting it affect him… Grant, he’s wonderful.”
Also during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave way to exasperation after the defeat at Chancellorsville.
“The President had been at the telegraph office when it arrived. Reading it, his face fell, as defeated as Hooker’s Army. He walked across the street to the White House, meeting with Noah Brooks, a news correspondent he had grown to trust.
“Read it,” he spoke with a trembling voice. “News from the army.”
Brooks continues: “The appearance of the President as I read aloud these fateful words, was piteous. Never, as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken up, so dispirited, and so ghostlike.
“Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying ‘My God, my God, what will the country say! What will the country say!’“
Even Winston Churchill, who was likely a manic-depressive, had his moments of despair:
“Churchill was so paralysed by despair that he spent time in bed, had little energy, few interests, lost his appetite, couldn’t concentrate. He was minimally functional – and this didn’t just happen once or twice in the 1930s, but also in the 1920s and 1910s and earlier. These darker periods would last a few months, and then he’d come out of it and be his normal self.”
The point being that having a momentary loss of composure due to strain is common among even the most accomplished. And it is exactly at these critical moments that leaders need to be picked up, to be sustained. What I’ve learned from my episodes is I need my team as much as they (hopefully) need me. I need them to sense when I’m out of gas and require a push to the finish line; to sense when I’m shot and need something taken off my plate. It’s humbling to know, to admit that we can’t light the way all the time, but it’s the cold hard truth.
Now, the other salient point is that you want to make sure you’ve been, and are being, the kind of leader who deserves to be saved when you need it. And how does one accomplish this? Well, start by being a decent human being and caring about your team. Give them what you can when you can, give them consideration and give them kindness. Hopefully, they will give it back when you need it most. Hopefully, they will jump right in, without hesitation, and straight out the jumble.