When I think of all the people I’ve worked with over the past 30+ years in the engineering world, few have had more of a profound impact on me than one particular supervisor I worked for several years ago.
When something went wrong, for which he thought I was responsible, he would call me into his office. Rarely, if ever, raising his voice above conversational level, but with surgical precision bordering on the uncanny, he would choose just the right words to verbally slice me into tiny ribbons. Sometimes, I even thought he was going to fire me! I would leave his office, head down, dejected and angry about being treated unfairly. He was not the easiest guy to deal with.
One day he called me into his office. As I walked inside, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Oh great! What did I do now?” But, after I sat down, he began to tell me instead about his Kung Fu training, which began for him as a young man. He even explained to me about the origins of this martial art as well as its philosophies and techniques. After our “meeting,” I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, that was weird, but really cool!” I also found it very interesting. About once a week after that, my boss would call me into his office and he would tell me more about Kung Fu, then send me back to work.
Meanwhile, whenever something “bad” happened, he would continue to call me into his office for those verbal “dismantlings,” that were still extremely unpleasant. And, I would feel angry inside as I did before. But, once he said what he had to say, his demeanor would change, and he would give me some business advice, and begin again talking about Kung Fu, explaining more about its history, its philosophy and even more about the discipline itself. By the time I walked out of there, my inner anger had been replaced by a sense of harmony. It was as though he and I were on the same page. I also felt an inexplicable sense of confidence.
Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting
One particular session that stands out to me to this day, occurred when my supervisor told me about how Kung Fu masters would often be very tough on their students. But, this mode of training was important as it taught the student how to stay calm, to make the right decisions, and to do things the right way.
“If you were my Kung Fu student, and I taught you how to correctly block a punch, and you didn’t do exactly as I’d taught, you would get hit,” he said. “Well, it’s the same way in your professional life! If I teach you how to handle a situation and you don’t do it the way I’ve taught you, then you will fail.”
At that moment, the light bulb came on! I said to him, “So, you’re using the principles of Kung Fu to mold me into a better engineer?” “Kevin, he said, I believe that you have potential and I’m trying to bring that out. When I call you into my office and give you a hard time about something, I am purposely tearing you down. But, then I’m rebuilding you into the person I know you can be!”
Through my time with that company, this boss continued to alternate between being tough on me, talking about business, and Kung Fu. At times, I still felt like he was being unreasonable and unfair. But, instead of being angry, I was now smiling, because I understood that, although a bit unconventional, this was his way to help me grow. And that experience has had a transformational effect on my career.
Wax on. Wax off.
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