The Leader

December 22, 1998

The rhythmic ticking of the clock, the double basso whoosh of the air conditioning, the emptiness of the office at 10pm, you could feel it on your skin. No man should be forced to do this, certainly not me. At 3 in the afternoon, the reports were delivered, but he could have saved everybody the effort. He didn’t need a crystal ball and he didn’t need any summaries of cash flow and revenue, let’s see ... where is that number.

Did everybody know? Or was it really his secret? His deep and dark secret, tormenting his soul from the depths of hell.

But there were brighter days, could it really be just 22 months ago? Nursing the project, begging and pleading, how many projections can one man make? (he lost count at 12). And the old farts approved it! All of that money, all of those positions. And hand picked people, each with their individual skills, but each with that little extra something, that little spark in their eyes. Each one understood how special this project would be, and each wanted a chance to be on the “ground floor” as they rolled out the not-so-secret weapon that had been in product development for almost 5 years.

“Ground Floor!”, he said out loud, to the empty chairs and the darkened desks. “Ground Floor”, he said quietly, to his shoes and his stack of pointless reports. That picnic the first summer, where each had brought forth to him a spouse, a family. It was like he was supposed to bless their marriages or kiss their babies. For Christ’s sake, it was just a project. But not to them. And it was so surreal that they had all believed in him, somehow, even though he had not asked them to do so. Sure they had all taken a chance, but everybody, especially him, had known deep down inside that it was a guaranteed, sure-thing, good-as-gold, proposition.

But the reports, the numbers, the little black dots staring and dancing and pointing and laughing. Like demons, like the kids in 5th grade, pointing and taunting. “We told you so”, the cruel and heartless number dance and point. “You’ll never be anything”, the lines and smears roll over themselves and sing. “And you took all those people, and their families, and their babies, and you loaded them in a boat and sunk it to the bottom of the sea.”

It wasn’t that bad, they all knew this was a ‘high-risk’ project, that it could go either way. And the engineers knew when they couldn’t quite deliver the elasticity, and the floor couldn’t quite keep to tolerance. But sales knew, they knew from the second week, when the client started saying “maybe” when they had spoken nothing except contracts and cash for over a year.

Suddenly it was an ‘untested technology’ and a ‘risk’. And the mindless herd, the ‘me-too’ mob mentality appeared, just as he had predicted, but it was echoing the fear, not lining up for product. Yes, sales knew right away, and they nearly killed themselves with brochures and shows and visits. If he never shook another hand, never bowed to another little Japanese weasel, playing tough guy and squinting thru glasses designed for his father, and asking about ‘cost containment’....

But there would be no more customer visits, no more presentations at the hotel conference room, no more dreadful breakfasts eaten without sleep from the night before. No there would only be explanations, and private consultations. Each man, each woman, would have to learn what he knew, what he had been told at the end of last quarter, that this was the last quarter and there would be no more.

Sales knew, Johnson and Jeffries were gone 60 days ago. That’s the difference that 10 years gives you. The new kids will do alright. They were shaking hands and getting names, they will know who to call.

But the people on the floor. We had asked them to do so much, and they did it and they did more. Why had he weeded so carefully. He should have taken the rocks, the losers, but they were the ones that stayed behind, protecting their ‘seniority’ instead of taking ‘profit sharing’. “Profit! Hah!”, he shouted out loud, and then felt embarrassed, as if the empty room would repeat what it heard. The people on the floor must suspect, he had talked about it, talked around it, laid out the goals, and the missed targets. But the floor had always delivered, always delivered MORE than than were asked for. But they knew, they new this was a start-up. But their families, their children.

And what of himself. The admins will blend right back into corporate, not even skip a beat. He’d caught the leads and the engineers reading the internal postings for weeks now. They knew the numbers weren’t there and most had heard through the grapevine just how big the nut was and far we were missing it by.

“What about me?”, he asked. With the car on the fritz and kid needing braces and the furnace acting up and with Christmas time coming. He gave his word. “My word!”, he said solemnly to the assembled file cabinets and visitors chairs. And they sat in rapt attention. But the room won’t be silent when he goes before the board. Sure, Gail and Todd will be sitting right there, but it will be his mouth, his voice, his words that will sound the knell and cut like a knife, a knife through the hearts and the lives and worlds of people that he sought out and groomed, hand-picked and lead. Lead them straight thru to disaster, ended in disaster. And the numbers won’t change. And wishing won’t work. And Friday will arrive, right on schedule, and he will be standing there, at that little table with the three chairs and addressing those 20 old farts. Where are the wolves that are supposed to thin this herd? Why did I start, and what will I say. And what will I say when I get home tonight?

He opened the window and looked out onto the freeway, he could hear the nighttime crickets, and see the outlines of the stand of trees outlined by the nearly full moon. Tomorrow the sun would rise over the parking structure, and he would call a meeting, and Todd and Gail and he would put it together, would wrap it all up, and would close out this chapter and start a new one.

“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night”, this time in a whisper, lest he wake someone. This time low and quiet, like the prayers at a funeral. And with that said, he cranked the window closed, and put the reports in his case, and turned off the lights, and listened to the click click click of his shoes as he walked down the hallway, and out into the empty parking lot, and onto the next chapter of his life.

Copyright, 1998, All rights reserved

Written: December 1998
First Upload: February 4, 2000
Last Update: April 22, 2001