It is one of those mornings when, too early, I find myself on a jet headed east from Seattle. Thankfully, though I am in the last row of coach at the window, there is a seat between me and the guy who sits down at the aisle. At least, I can stretch out my elbows. Not so thankfully, after he orders two vodkas and bloody mary mix at 6:45 AM, he wants to talk. “Why me?” is all I can think about.
He is owner and CEO of a small company and he is on his way to a conference to make a speech. He wants to know what I do for a living. I tell him, without elaborating. “That’s very interesting,” he says. Always a bad sign.
Okay, I’m an introvert. I have a right. I work hard connecting. But do I have to do it now? I got up at 4:00 just to get on this jet. All I really want to do is lean my head into the cabin wall and drift away into the white noise of the engines….
He’s laughing with the flight attendant. Another two vodkas. It’s barely 7:00. I’m asking myself how long this flight is going to be. I try to meditate for a moment, get centered, relax, but all I can think of is how every twenty-seven flights — on average — I end up sitting next to someone who just has to violate my space. Like the guy who leaned over my computer to take a long look and then, shouting because I have my earphones on, says to the entire cabin, “Say, whacha writin?” Or like the dude who spontaneously engaged in a political argument with the stranger in the seat in front of him, and then turned to me, “You should hear what he’s saying up there. Can you believe it? You should say something to him. How can you just sit there?” All I remember of myself is a very dark, controlled, “Thanks, could you be quiet now?”
“Leadership,” says the CEO next to me on the morning flight, “is interesting stuff. You know I had to make a change a couple of years ago, a real change in the way I did things.”
By now I feel like I’ve just entered a Joseph Conrad novel and we are on a voyage up a river. I’m stuck on the inside seat. A story is coming. Oh, I could tell him anything: I’ve got to work to do; I’m sick; I don’t care. But I don’t say any of that. Instead, drawing on my (not so useful at this moment) training in coaching and counselling, I ask “What do you mean?” Lord, some days, I really wish I wouldn’t do that.
“Well,” he starts, “I had to change my life. I was working 100 hours a week. I was married, but the marriage was dead. She never saw me. I had a big sailboat and lived there a lot. I had a girlfriend on the side and we partied on the boat. I had six or seven people I’d hired as my management team at the company — every one of them an idiot. And I looked at every single set of project plans that came in the door. Nobody could do it as well as I could do it. Nobody was as smart as me.”
“Really.” I respond lamely. “But you changed?”
“Oh, yeah,” he continues, with the sort of blithe candor that marks a story that has already been told too many times. “I had to. I was holding the whole place together; at least that’s what I thought. I yelled at them a lot but they could never get it right. They all lived in fear of me and I liked it. All I did was work and buy more toys and party with my girlfriend. And then one night it happened. I was lying in bed and it hit me. (He pauses). The Big One. And I was in so much pain I couldn’t talk. By then my wife had her own bedroom down the hall, and I rolled out of bed trying to get her attention. I rolled around on the floor trying to speak for maybe twenty minutes — but I couldn’t yell out or anything. And I laid there, knowing my life was ending, and for the very first time in my life (I’m guessing he’s about 48 or so) I did something really different. I actually took some time to reflect on my existence.”
By now, of course, I’m hooked. I’m grabbed by the Ancient Mariner.
“And I thought about what a schmuck I’d been and how I was cheating on my wife and I was killing other people at work and how I was one arrogant son of a bitch, and I knew I had to change. Somehow I made just enough noise that my wife found me and got me to the hospital.”
“It’s funny, you know…”
“Yes, funny,” I say.
“It’s funny how for the first time in my life I realized I was really dependent on other people. Here I am, ‘the guy in charge,’ and I lay there like a baby in that hospital bed and here comes some 22 year old kid to help me take a crap and I thought to myself, I’ve got to figure this out. I’ve got to get out of here. And so you know the first thing that I did?”
“No, what did you do?”
“I got to know my surgeon. I really wanted to have a relationship with him. Because he was really my way out of this hospital. I got to know him really well. I talked and talked. I wanted him to be my best friend. I wanted him to get me out of this bed and I made him my friend, you know. To the point, he was talking to me about his own life. I kind of got him to open up to me, and then when I felt like I could do it, I told him, ‘I gotta get outta here.’ And because he was my friend now, he arranged it. … We’re still friends to this day. He still comes over to the house.”
“So then what happened,” I ask, certain of my own naivety; clearly just a shill by then.
“Well, I went back to work after a couple weeks and the first thing I did was fire half of those goddamned useless managers, and I got some people who weren’t just brown nosers, you know, people who would actually talk back. I had to let go and I knew it. I had to deal with what a prick and know-it-all I’d been. So I fired the worst of them, and got some people who were actually competent. And then I dealt with my marriage. I moved out, lived on the sailboat, got rid of the girlfriend. Got the divorce. And I stopped coming in to work everyday. I let them handle the company for me.”
“Wow,” I say. “So where are you headed now?”
“Oh, it’s a new life. That’s all. I don’t do much ‘real work’ anymore. I mostly just go to conferences and speak. Or do publicity events for our technology.”
“So you speak about your … change of life?”
“Oh no, no, not that,” he shares bluntly, “mostly just technical conferences, conferences for owners, CEO’s, stuff like that.”
At that moment, for some reason, I need to be a consultant. I want to offer him advice. I want to be gratified with the thought of my own wisdom, facing such a man. So I suggest: “Why don’t you talk about your heart attack? Maybe you could help a few people avoid having to go through so much pain.”
“Oh,” he says. “That’s an easy one. The heart attack? It’s absolutely necessary. It’s an ego thing. You have to have the heart attack. You know, without that, nothin’s gonna change.”
I turn to look out across the dry lands to the south and east, thousands of feet below. The bright light of the new sun is bothering my eyes. It is 7:30 and while I don’t have a hangover, I might as well have one. I am learning, and it doesn’t feel very good.
[This is a true story].