“If you want to build a high performance organization, you’ve got to play chess, not checkers.” — Mark Miller
I will never forget the creative leadership style of Bill LaKari. The year was 1968 when I first met him in the PennDOT (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) Right of Way Department of District 1-0 in Franklin, Pennsylvania.
Evie and I arrived in that small town of around 10,000 people along the beautiful Allegheny River in northwestern Pennsylvania to pastor a small church. We had not yet celebrated our first wedding anniversary and college was just behind us.
Because the church had only eight people and there was no salary, Evie and I had to find work. Evie soon got a job in the office of the Franklin High School. She worked there until she became pregnant about a year later, when she was required to quit once her baby bump became too visible. We still can hardly believe that policy but that was familiar life in some places in 1969.
It took me about three months to find the job at PennDOT. The task of the Right of Way Department was to purchase the right of way for PennDOT to build roads. Some roads, like the Beaver Valley Expressway, sliced right through farms and countryside as Mercer and Lawrence Counties grew and developed.
Other roads were merely widened or straightened and the land that PennDOT needed for public use had to be purchased from private owners. Not all owners where amiable. After working about a year in the office, I was able to progress to become a negotiator to talk to owners about selling their land.
I will never forget my first day on the road. I had three appointments. The first one was with the owner of a junk yard. As I got out of my car he walked over to me with a big German Shepherd dog by his side. After I introduced myself and explained why I was there, I still remember his words, “I am so mad I could kill someone.” Even though the slight widening of the road along the front of his property would help his land value, he did not want to sell. The claim was only $25.
After that meeting my next appointment was not much better. At the third place no one answered the door and I must confess I was not disappointed. As time moved on, however, I discovered those kinds of negative encounters were the exception, not the rule. The majority of people that I met in those seven counties of northwestern Pennsylvania were gracious and understanding.
After about a year, Bill LaKari became my boss. He was a short and stocky, cigar-smoking, golf-loving person who was clearly in charge. And though we all knew he was the boss, he always carried himself in a manner that caused us to like him. He laughed easily and he was never too busy for brief human connections.
But it was one of his leadership traits that I will never forget. Rarely did he ever direct us to do anything. Just about every time he wanted something, he would frame it in the form of a question, e.g., “Would you please go and get a copy of this document?” or “Would you go and see this person?” I am still amazed at his capacity to graciously direct us to do something by asking that we do it. To this day I am indebted to him for giving me this insight about leadership.
Over the years I have learned that this was more than a technique. It really was a part of who he was. As Elton Trueblood said, “We lead more by who we are than by what we do or say.”
He would have loved Peter Drucker’s words, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what is not being said.”
Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is president emeritus of the University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville. Connect via firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer, www.DrDonMeyer.com, Twitter and Instagram: @DrDonMeyer.