Leading by Letting...
I think oft of leadership. I'm 35 now. As I look back, I don't know that I grew up around that many good leaders. My dad is a great man, but we've talked often about leadership and he readily admits his shortcomings in that area. The men in my church growing up were nice men, but I don't know as I would call them leaders. They may have been in their jobs throughout the week, but when it came to leadership in the church, they were simply nice. Nice men. I think I grew up around a lot of nice men who were trying very hard to be nice.
There was one man, though, that stands out in my mind as an uber leader. Dennis Oulette. He was my boss for almost seven years between the ages of 13 and 20. I worked at Ontario Orchards, first on the farm in the fields, and then at the stand in retail and management. I learned a ton about honest toil, the trade of fruit farming, and commercial landscaping. Dennis had a passion for life like no one I'd ever met. He looked like a combination of Dr. Who, Einstein. and John McEnroe. He was fiery. He was generous. He was industrious. He was resourceful. He was a visionary. He was a leader.
When you wouldn't know how to do something, he would teach you. I don't mean just tell you what to do, I mean show you how to do it. He would pride himself in his ability to empower young people who didn't believe in themselves. He loved taking in a green heart and creating a seasoned veteran.
He would treat his employees like royalty. Taking us out to eat and footing the bill. Giving us bonuses for jobs well done. Throwing parties for the whole crew and celebrating our team.
I remember him taking off every few months for a trip to Vermont to heli-ski or to British Columbia to fish for salmon in remote rivers. He would try new things like sky diving, but he wouldn't be embarrassed to participate in a little dumpster diving if it meant saving money and salvaging something that had value. He wasn't above anything and yet nothing was beneath him. He was confident in his identity which produced a contagious freedom that spread to his crew that served under him. People would die for him.
I wonder who I would be or where I would be had I not met him at the ripe young age of 12. He didn't know Christ, but there was something about him that was Christ-like just the same. So many of the Christian men around me growing up were duds. I didn't relate to them, nor did they do much to try and relate to me. I loved God, but I couldn't figure out "men" and what it was to be a real man. I watched men around me. What were they laughing at? How did they interact in conversations? How did they interact with other women? What were their weaknesses and why wouldn't they let me see them? What were they hiding? Why were they hiding? I watched, I wondered, I withered.
But there was this man, Dennis, who showed me stuff. He believed in me. He looked me in the eyes when he would talk to me...piercing me through. He would have a vision, inject his passion into it, and when it was accomplished, he would sit back and laugh, enjoying the mirth of the moment before he entered his next adventure or misadventure. I loved being with him.
I remember one time when I was 13 years old working in the fields picking acorn and butternut squash with the farm crew. He drove the tractor trailer right to the edge of the field and we loaded up the 12 bushel bins into the trailer right there on site. I operated the fork lift as well as the hydraulic jack which I thought was pretty good for a ruddy young man like myself.
When the trailer was packed full, we load-locked the bins securely into place, closed the doors and hopped into the truck to take them up to the barn where we would unload them into storage. I hopped in the passenger seat and buckled in. Just then, he opened the passenger side door and said to me, "Scoot over, JayJay, you're driving." I could tell by the way he said it that he meant it.
It was nearly two miles to the barn and the only thing I had driven with a clutch was my lawn mower and our little tractor. I could barely see over the dashboard. He told me to raise the seat by pulling a little lever on the side of the seat that released something that sounded like air brakes. My thighs started getting squeezed under the steering wheel, so I relented. And the steering wheel--oh, my word--it was huge. I grabbed it ten and two and just sat there all stretched out and petrified. He showed me how to pop all these switches before I turned the key and how to work the shifter. It had about 223 gears!
And then he just sat there and let me figure it out myself. I turned the key and it fired up and shook the cab with violent power. I felt like I was in the space shuttle preparing for a launch. I flipped a couple switches, grabbed the shifter, popped it into gear and slowly let off the clutch. I had to back it up first in order to turn around and face the road. I looked out my rearview mirrors and, with sweat literally dripping off my brow, backed the trailer in between a few apple trees and got the truck positioned so that I could pull her out on the old country road.
I remember looking over at Dennis--he was nonchalantly reading some magazine. He appeared to have all the confidence in the world that I would get us up to the barn in one piece. I, on the other hand, wasn't so sure. I pulled out on the blacktop with fear and trepidation. I had never driven on the blacktop before. Not only was this illegal, it was insane. And yet, his quite confidence in me bolstered me and I longed to make him proud.
And with that, I shifted through nearly 8 gears and coasted down the road toward the storage units. I struggled to see over the steering wheel and my legs just barely reached the clutch, brake and gas pedals. With every 1000 yards, I was not only gaining speed, I was gaining confidence. Someone believed in me and didn't just say it, they put their money were their mouth was. I was driving an 18 wheeler and I was 13. This, needless to say, was a right of passage for me. I will never forget that 5 minutes of adrenaline. When I pulled into the parking lot and came to a halt, I engaged the parking brake and just sat there stupefied. I did it. And he let me.
He led me because he let me. I hope I can be that for people around me. Thanks Dennis for your permission, your validation, your leadership.
I owe a great deal to that man.