A Powerful Leadership Lesson From an 8th Grade Drunk

Who would've known that showing up drunk for my eighth grade science class would teach me a leadership lesson I would hang on to for 40 years.
Leadership Lessons

The day I walked drunk into my 8th grade science class I learned an important lesson on leadership. 

It started out in Robert Burnaby Park in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby that I grew up in. As a curious young lad on the verge of adulthood I made the fateful decision that it was finally time to try my hand at alcohol. I had recently made the transition from elementary school to middle school and was ready to make that bold leap into “manhood”. 

One of my best friends was a boy who I developed a deep connection with over the lone computer at our elementary school. This was well before computers were mainstream and he and I were absolutely the bright eyed, math wizards, computer geeks of our day. Not really the type that you would expect to be skipping school to head down to the local park to get drunk.

My parents weren’t much for booze at all, however, I had managed to steal a bottle of wine from the basement of our home. Eager to dip our toes in the waters of manhood, Je and I took the bottle to a secluded area of the park for a little privacy. I took one swig of that wine and nearly puked. 

This wine tasted fucking horrible! As we started to reevaluate our plan another wayward youth from school wandered by. Mac jacket, jean vest, hair halfway down his back sporting an Iron Maiden tee and high top sneakers. We were in luck! This was an older boy with a bit of a reputation of being a badass.

We shared with him our dilemma over the wine and after a quick look at the bottle he flipped his long flowing locks back with a chuckle of diresion and said 

“Dude! This isn’t wine! This is lemon gin. You need to mix that shit.”

Leadership lessons from eighth grade

With that he left us to our devices, alone with our bottle of not-wine-gin. Now there is no doubt that as computer geeks Je and I were nothing if not problem solvers, so off we went. We covered the 4 block hike to the local convenience store and picked up a bottle of 7 up. We dumped some of the pop and replaced it with the Gin. Now we were talking! Operation badass back on track.

As you can well imagine at this point the story gets a little fuzzy in my head. I’m not sure what actually happened but somehow after several drinks Je and I got split up. My head was in a fog and I really did not understand the feeling at all. 

Suddenly alone, confused and way out of my element I racked my brain for a plan. I didn’t have one. Well, not a good one anyhow. So I did the only thing that I could think to do. 

I stumble-staggered my way back to the Jr. High School and proceeded directly to my current block science class. I can only imagine what my science teacher was thinking as I wandered in that classroom door. Late, glassy eyed and completely clueless I made my way to an open desk, sat down and acted as if all was right with the world.

By the time she made her way over to me, all eyes were on me. Everyone had stopped what they were doing and watched as she approached me. Surely wondering what kind of reaction this confrontation would elicit.

I’m not sure if I actually remember the scene or if I’ve simply told the story so many times I’ve created the memory. As I recollect, our eyes locked as she approached, her hand reaching into her signature white, science teacher lab coat. She pulled out her little hall pass/permission slip/detention notepad thingy and scribbled something hastily on it. She then handed it to me with the instructions “Please report to the principal’s office”  

Yeah, right! What? Did she think I was drunk? I wasn’t about to… Or was I. 

I crumpled up the note, stuffed it back in her lab coat pocket and left the room. I don’t know why I did what I did next but I did it.

I marched my sorry little ass right on down to the principal’s office. Clearly this whole rebel thing was relatively new to me. Project rebellion needed a little work for certain. 

Leadership Lessons

An unlikely spot for a leadership lesson for sure. However It was there, in that office that I got a leadership lesson that would stick with me for the rest of my life.

Joe Varro was the vice principal at Edmonds Jr. High School. He was the one in charge of student discipline. Mr. Varro was a kind man with a gentle voice. Mr. Varro led me into his office and closed the door. “Sit down” he said as he slowly and deliberately proceeded to sit down in his chair across from me.

I imagine him pushing his glasses up onto his forehead to make more direct eye contact. Folding his hands on his lap contemplating his next words. I sat there in my drunken stupor waiting to hear what the outcome of this little unfortunate rendezvous would be. 

I’m not certain of the entire conversation, however I very vividly remember him asking me:

“Do you know the difference between hurt and harm Mike?”

I’m not sure what I said next but I’m 100% certain I did not have the answer he was looking for. He proceeded to explain to me the difference. He said “Hurt is temporary Mike. Harm is permanent. I want you to know that I would never do anything to harm you. However, what I have to do now will hurt you but I want you to know that I do it because I care about you and I want you to succeed in life.”

And with that I went on to receive my very first (not my last) ever school suspension. Boom! Project rebellion was back on track.

Hurt is temporary, harm is permanent.

This lesson has stuck with me for 40 years now. As leaders, parents and even as friends there are times when we have to deliver news, or take action that might be hurtful in order to ultimately be helpful. 

For someone who puts compassion and empathy at the top of their list of values, taking action that I might deem as “hurtful” is very difficult to do. Remembering this distinction between hurt and harm has been incredibly helpful for me in my leadership journey. 

As a father, a business leader and a friend this is the difference maker when it comes to looking at values such as compassion/empathy in the context of leadership. There is a contingent of people who assert that these values are “weak” and therefore do not have a place at the leadership table. The truth is that when we are mindful of this difference between hurt and harm these values become paramount to excellent leadership.

We have seen multiple examples in recent history where leaders who have lacked empathy and compassion have caused great harm to those around them. To me the true measure of a leader is knowing the difference and having the courage to take action.  It is about having the discernment to know when our actions may cause harm and should be avoided. It is about being brave enough to take action that may cause temporary hurt but will help those we serve in the long run.  

For me this comes up often in the context of giving feedback to those around me. Honest constructive feedback sometimes hurts however that is how we grow. We can also deliver feedback in a way that can cause harm. We get to choose how and when that feedback is delivered and therefore whether that feedback is hurtful or harmful.

I love having bite sized mantras to carry with me as I continue my journey as a business and community leader, as a father and as a partner to an exceptional woman. “Hurt is temporary, harm is permanent” is one of those mantras that has helped me be a better servant leader. What are some of the truisms, mantras or leadership nuggets that you carry with you in your day to day?

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