Dealing with 'The Man'

If you work in a leadership role at some point you are going to find yourself confronted with "The Man". While taking many possible forms, The Man is any authority figure who has the ability to hinder your progress toward your destination.

At the Border

The Green Tortoise had a way of attracting the attention of The Man. I once made a short dip into Mexico to drop off a group of passengers bound for Central America at the airport in Tijuana. Having been over the border before, I was prepared to be questioned by the Border Guards at the checkpoint at San Ysidro on our return to California. Unfortunately, I was not the one driving the bus.

We pulled up to the vehicle inspection area at the US Border and were approached by a Border Patrol agent who obviously didn't know what to make of our ride. She stood on the curb looking the bus up and down with a half-amused look on her face.

As she looked us over she casually asked, "So, where are you headed?".

The driver, who was facing away from her and still wearing his sunglasses said, "I don't know" in a tone that said he was annoyed to be asked and didn't think it was any of her damn business.

The guard's demeanor suddenly changed and her eyes snapped onto him. I could tell that even though the bus was green, all she could see was a big red flag. She ordered the rest of us off the bus and into the waiting area while she had the other driver take her, another inspector, and a sniffer dog on a full inspection of the inside, outside, underside, roof, luggage bays, and engine compartment of the bus. It was over two hours before we were on our way.

Once clear of the checkpoint, we asked the driver what the hell he was thinking talking to a US Border Guard like that, but he just grumbled about how unfair it all was and how his rights had been violated. Clearly, he had a problem with authority that I hadn't noticed before. I honestly have no clue why the other driver reacted the way he did, but based on how he answered one very simple question, I fully understand why the Border agent decided to search us.

Getting Along with The Man

Talking about the experience with some other drivers there was general agreement that when you are asked questions by officials giving direct and cordial answers is always preferable — they've got a job to do and they're going to do it, whether you like it or not.

One of the drivers also offered me his personal take on how to deal effectively with The Man:

"When dealing with potentially hostile authorities
you need to make them part of your movie"

He didn't give me much more information than that, so I filed the idea on the back burner.

A Small Town Cop

Some time later I was driving a cross country trip through a long stretch of middle America and the group was ready for dinner. Consulting my map the nearest thing that looked like a place where we could cook a meal was a small state park, but it was miles off the highway. We pulled off at the appropriate exit, and had not gone a mile when we stumbled onto exactly what we were looking for: on the edge of the town was a large, grassy park with a picnic shelter, bathrooms and water spigots. One side faced a row of neat houses on the edge of town, while the other had a great view of farmland and prairie, so it was an attractive spot. This would give us everything we needed and it was completely empty, so we pulled in by the shelter and set up the kitchen.

We had just gotten the water on to boil when a police cruiser pulled slowly around the corner and slid into the parking area away from our bus. I could see someone inside who appeared to be talking on the radio, so my guess was that he had gotten a call from one of the houses facing the park about a weird bus full of strange people. After a minute or so he got out and started walking slowly towards us. The cop looked like a no-nonsense fan of law and order, and he approached us warily. I knew that I needed to say something that was going to get him to relax and let us cook our meal and be on our way. I waited until he was within earshot and spoke first.

"Good afternoon officer, this is a wonderful park you've got here!" I knew that sucking up to him was not going to do the job, but it was a good place to start.

The officer didn't respond, so I continued "We've got 38 travelers from all over the world with us today and we're showing them the real America!"

This seemed to give him a slight pause in his step because I had just taken the spotlight off me and put it on him — he was no longer defending his town from a potential threat, now he was representing his town to the world. I could see a subtle shift in his demeanor toward a more conciliatory stance. He paused his approach a few feet away from where we'd set up the kitchen and gave a quick scan of the group of passengers that were standing around getting ready to cook dinner, as well as the cutting boards, food and stoves that we'd set up on the park's picnic tables.

"Well ... y'all are welcome to use the park..." he said in a fairly friendly tone as he looked around at the group of young Europeans, " long as you make sure you clean up after yourselves ..."

This last comment had a little more emphasis and was directed squarely at me. He seemed to be no longer concerned with the passengers, but he was now focused on me and I could see that he wanted to make sure I understood who was ultimately in charge. I made a point not to fluster under his gaze as I showed him that we had a trash bag already open (part of our standard kitchen set up) and then mentioned that we were planning on taking our trash with us and would deposit it at the next rest area.

There was a short, uncomfortable silence that followed, and I stood looking at my reflection in the sunglasses perched on his tanned, stony face. I got the sense that he was still sizing me up, but that he didn't have any reason to kick us out. Had I continued standing there — idly pulling skin off the onion that was about to get chopped — I think he eventually would have left us alone with a warning that he'd be checking for trash later, and was ready to kick butts if he found any.

The interrogation appeared to be just about over, but I wondered if I could take this conversation in a different direction, so I asked him another question.

"Oh, officer, I wonder if you could help us with something..." I started, as if I had just remembered it. This raised an eyebrow beneath his dark shades.

" of the passengers asked me what crop was growing in the field over there (not actually true) and I didn't know — do you?"

This was a calculated move on my part. If there's one thing that most men like to do it's pontificate about subjects they feel knowledgeable about. Since he clearly lived in a farming town I knew I was throwing him a pitch he could hit, plus it didn't hurt that I was putting his knowledge above mine in front of the whole group, which further reinforced his authority.

"That'd be corn, but it's still young so you can't see the ears yet." He seemed amused at my ignorance to such a simple agricultural question (though I already knew it was corn), so I tossed him another.

"So is farming the major business around here?" I ask, a little naively (as we're obviously in the middle of farm country, with plowed fields all around).

"Farming and ranching both. My cousin's place is over yonder ..." and he jerks his thumb toward the horizon, offering something personal to the conversation, "...he's got about 50 head of cattle right now."

The passengers standing nearby turn their heads to look for cows. One of the passengers then asks him another question, to which he gives a longer answer. He's starting to warm up to the group — and to the role of playing representative to an international group of travelers. About the time he's pointing out the hill over which the first wagons came back in eighteen something-or-other I notice the coffee pot has been brewing the whole time we've been talking, so I pour a cup and hand it to him without a word (because what cop doesn't like coffee?). He takes a sip and continues his tour of Mayberry. He's dropped the tough guy stance now and has moved fully into Tour Guide mode, asking the passengers where they're from and how long they've been traveling. While he talked with the bulk of the group, I worked with a couple of the passengers to get dinner prepared.

The officer just landed a starring role in my movie.

He stayed for about half an hour more while we prepped dinner then excused himself to make his rounds as we began to eat. We invited him to stay of course, and he said that our dinner sure looked good, but his wife would be offended if he didn't eat when he got home. He thanked me for the coffee and let me fill the thermos in his car as well. He reiterated that we were welcome to enjoy the use of the park as long as we cleaned up after ourselves, but this time his tone was much friendlier, and I got the impression that he'd had some issues with groups in the past that had left a mess in the park and I made a mental note to leave things spic and span.

We finished dinner, cleaned the dishes and re-packed the bus prior to leaving. I noticed that the passengers took extra care in cleaning up the park without my having to ask them, even to the point of taking the trash that was already in the park trash cans to pack along with ours. I left feeling confident that we had made a good impression and that we would be welcome back any time.

Working with The Man

We had a successful interaction with the officer that day. Some might say that we did that by sucking up to The Man, while others might say that we did it through manipulating him, but I see it differently. To me the lesson is that, even in a situation where there is potential friction, there is often a way to turn things positive — you just need to find the right common ground. The officer appeared to enjoy playing the role of ambassador more than he did of rules enforcer and I allowed him an opportunity to do that. For my part I wanted to provide an expedient, but fun and interesting, meal stop and I got exactly what I wanted. The passengers were fed and got to meet a genuine lawman from Middle America who gave them an inside view on life in a small town on the prairie, which is part of why they came to visit America in the first place. He even posed for a few pictures. Everybody came out ahead and enjoyed having met.

Leading groups is all about understanding what drives the people you work with and learning how to align those motivations into actions toward a common goal. Once your group is in motion, they are sure to encounter authority figures along the way who can either help or hinder that motion. As a leader it is up to you to understand how to put your group's mission into a context that will make sense to anyone who you run into and give them every reason to help you move forward or, if that's too much to hope for, at least not stand in your way.

The key skill that a leader needs to learn is how to see things from another's point of view. With a Border Patrol agent you know what they are looking for: contraband and security threats. The sooner that you can demonstrate to them that you represent neither, the sooner you are on your way. The Police officer was looking for threats to his town. The sooner you show him that you are not a threat the sooner he stops being a hindrance to you. In both cases the opportunity was there to have a positive and quick interaction. Which way things went was all in control of the leader.

In the corporate world the characters are different, but the scenarios are similar. The Finance Team may get in the way of your project, but put yourself in their shoes and you'll understand that you need to demonstrate ROI (Return on Investment) for your project and they suddenly become helpful by working with you to document and demonstrate that ROI. The IT folks can create one roadblock after another, until you realize that without the questions they're asking your application will fall over as soon as it gets more than 5 users. The sooner you give them what they need to make it stable the sooner they'll be ready to put it into production. The Project Management Team may make you stop for a time to fully document your requirements and define your functional and technical specifications, but you'll find that the project moves along much faster once you have these deliverables completed.

The Man is there for a reason. You may not like it, but the sooner you accept it and learn how to work with it, the more successful you'll be. Generally speaking, they are not that different from you — they have a job to do, same as you do. Find a way to align your goals with theirs and suddenly you are working together to achieve something of value to both of you.