I knew I was in trouble the moment he smiled.
All I could see were four metal teeth — the front ones — the ones people use to bite things. Like an apple. Or the head of an outside consultant teaching a class on creativity to 24 managers at AT&T.
His nametag said “John Andrews,” but when it was his turn to introduce himself, it was “Master Staff Sergeant John Andrews, Fourth Battalion.”
Apparently, the man was still fighting the Vietnam war — and, by the look in his eye, it was clear he couldn’t quite tell what side I was on.
Unlike the other participants, John was wearing a suit and a tie — a tie tied so tight it seemed as if the veins in his neck would explode.
With great respect, I invited John to remove his tie, explaining that relaxation was one of the pre-conditions for creativity.
The man was not the first tough cookie I’d encountered in my tour of corporate America. It came with the territory. Over the years, I’d learned to embrace this kind of moment. John was not the enemy. He was not a problem. He was simply someone I would need to be aware of as the session unfolded.
John was probably the same with me as he was with his wife, children, dog, and dry cleaner. He was, quite simply, a master at making people uncomfortable.
Mother Teresa could have entered the room and John would have found a way to get her walking on eggshells.
At no time during the two days of the creativity training did Master Sergeant John Andrews, Fourth Battalion, ever give me the slightest indication he was receiving any value. Not a smile. Nod a nod. Not a nothing.
When the session ended, the rest of the participants were out the door in a heartbeat. John stayed.
He was still wearing his tie.
“Do you… need any help cleaning up?” he asked.
“Yes, John, I do. Thanks.”
We both got busy picking stuff up off the floor.
Two minutes later, John, now on his hands and knees, looked up at me.
“I… wonder if I can have a few minutes of your time?” he asked. “I need some help.”
Seeing this proud man on his hands and knees, looking up at me with a mix of fear and sadness, was not a picture I’d imagined when he first bared his teeth just two days before.
According to John, his direct reports had just completed their 360 degree evaluations of him and the results were “not good.” His job was on the line and he was frozen with fear.
I have absolutely no memory of what I said to John that day. All I know is whatever came out of my mouth rang true for him.
It had nothing to do with creativity. It had nothing to do with innovation. It had a lot to do with life. John’s life. My life. All of our lives. Not the WHAT of life, but the HOW.
The difference between a life of business and the business of life.
Time stopped for the two of us. We just hung out in that space, saying nothing, doing nothing.
Then, with the barest of smiles, John stood and asked me if it would be alright if he took a second set of juggling balls home to his 14-year old son.
I found myself singing on the way home that day.
Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions and the author of “Awake at the Wheel”, as well as the very popular Heart of Innovation blog.