Discipline Needed to Avoid ‘Popeye’ Moments

I learned early in my career that authenticity is always lying just below the surface and will eventually assert its will.

As a young man in my 30s, I was running a fairly large sales operation for IBM on the West Coast of the U.S. At that time, all companies doing interstate commerce were required by the federal government to compile extensive reports on the status of their equal opportunity efforts.

Unfortunately, this onerous reporting requirement had soured most managers, and the bureaucratic process had received far more attention than the real work of hiring and promoting minorities.

In January of that year, a well-meaning HR vice president had instituted yet one more layer of reporting, requiring all managers to have written development plans on file for each person in their organization who was in an “affected class,” essentially women and minorities.

This requirement became an exercise in filling out forms rather than stimulating any real extra effort at authentic career counseling and development. Those managers already doing the job of developing their people now merely had an extra burden.

Each quarter, the nine of us responsible for our division’s national results reviewed our progress with senior management in New Jersey. At the third-quarter review that year, the vice president who had instituted the development plan requirement entered the meeting and asked us what we thought of it. He was obviously looking for agreement.

I heard a voice say, “I think it is the biggest bunch of B.S. I’ve ever seen.” It was a full five seconds before I realized that it had been my voice uttering these words. Clearly my career was in serious jeopardy, and in the following mini-seconds that seemed like hours, I knew that I didn’t care.

The next voice, after a stunned silence, was that of my boss and mentor, Ed Mosner. “I couldn’t agree with you more,” he said. “How would you like to fix it?”

Most people will experience some moment similar to this, either vicariously or personally. Finding one’s voice is not the same as discovering values, but often in that moment of frustration when values are violated, the voice can’t be stopped.

Popeye, the sailor cartoon character of old, was known for such moments of frustration. He was patient to a point, but when pushed to the wall by his cartoon rival, or when his friend and love Olive Oyl was threatened, he would raise his right index finger high, puff his cheeks, and mutter, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”

Out would come a can of spinach, he would down it in one swallow, and proceed to take care of the situation, usually with physical force. Such moments of expression are mythical, in that they signal a “coming of age,” a willingness to “stand” for something.

In literature, theater, art and motion pictures, these moments are depicted to inspire us, as people throw their lives, or in my case, their careers, into the flame of conviction about an issue.

Because Mosner valued authenticity over politics, his response to my outburst was positive. I might not have been so fortunate. Many are not. Yet people who take stands based upon their beliefs have moved closer to leadership. They are clear about what matters, and they have mustered the courage to speak in defense of that value.

Still, being impetuous is not leading. I could hardly claim that my outburst about the development plan inspired anyone. Horrified, yes. Inspired, no. Mosner’s act of grace extended my career by two years, and I did indeed get involved in emphasizing the “doing” part of development over the “reporting” part.

As I began the task of turning the bureaucratic process into some meaningful result, I realized I had to communicate about it in a different way. Ranting and raving about bureaucracy wasn’t going to work.

Many people were emotionally invested in the process in place, and most were skeptical about making any change at all. I would need a disciplined and inclusive approach to get anyone’s attention, and my communication would have to reflect something far greater than merely changing a reporting procedure if I were to inspire others to act.

I had to not only show competence but also stay connected to what was meaningful and communicate from that principle.

It wasn’t hard to discover that the value that had been violated by this suggested practice was authenticity. In this case, the leaders of my division of IBM had been unconsciously promoting form over substance, letting convention get in the way of actually making a difference.

We had been going through the motions. To lead our way out, my basic message had to be supported by the flaw in that motivation and my commitment to change it. The message had to be clear and deep, and I had to craft it well before I could begin to deliver it.

While the requirement for the development plans stayed in place, the spirit of completing them changed, and the enforcement of the practice took on a completely different tone. A few years later, the federal government dropped the requirement for the extensive reporting.

Although I had left IBM long before, I was sure that the managers who were involved in this change were still doing the right thing for the right reason. They were not just filling out forms.

The time to discipline our voice is when we first hear or feel the faint rumble of something wanting to get out. That impulse is vital to progress. But only by disciplining our voice can we allow real leadership to emerge.

It isn’t necessary to wait for your voice to assert itself without your help. In fact, as I can attest, it’s better not to wait for that Popeye moment. It is far better to decide what your values compel you to change and set about doing it.

Adapted from “Leading Out Loud” by Terry Pearce, founder and president of Leadership Communication, a coaching and consulting company. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.