[May 8, 2019] A college friend of mine is a retired logger. Originally from the backwoods of Montana, he is a bear of a man; hot-tempered and blunt with a quick comeback. Before I really knew him, he invited me out once for some local tree cutting to stock his oversized woodstove. On our way to a stand of trees, he said, ya’ know … just owning a chainsaw doesn’t make you a logger.
Missing three fingers on his left hand and half a foot from wood cutting accidents, Sean O’Brien knew his trees, his tools, and his people. Turns out that “Half-Foot Sean” (as his friends called him), once owned a small logging company in Northwest Montana that made him and his family comfortable enough to buy a nice home near his daughter and grandkids.
What he taught me about logging was a little surprising to a logging neophyte like me but what he showed me in leadership made up for his gruff manner and sarcastic sense of humor. His simple philosophy in life and leadership was that everyone has a story to tell and that he is willing to listen. His message was that you cannot lead by just having a leadership position and a fancy title.
He said that his first step to maturity was when he came to the realization that the world exists in stories and that each person has one to tell, if only we listen. Leadership means that we are in the people business and their stories matter a great deal.
Here is what he told me. I asked him to repeat himself to make sure I got it right:
- Everyone must be somewhere, but some people don’t know where they are.
- Everyone must be going somewhere also; thus the impetus to action.
- Everyone must hope that where they are going is valuable and worthwhile. This implies where they are today is not good enough and where they are going is better.
- Our values help narrow the path and simplify our choices along the way.
- … and it’s the leader’s job is to know the other person’s values if we are to remove obstacles and use our leadership tools for good.
Figuring out Sean’s philosophy was a major step for me to understand that the stories we tell are really about us. Stories have something about them that is attractive.1 How we act, what we think, and the choices we make (job, spouse, life, etc.) is the story.
For me, this was no easy philosophy of leadership to understand. Our stories are not all adventures, easy, or fun. But it is the battle that takes place over our lifetimes that defines us and makes us worthy individuals. If you are ever out in Montana, just ask for half-foot Sean. Maybe, he’ll tell you a story that just owning a chainsaw does not make you a logger.
- Psychologists suggest this is an innate desire we all possess.