Virus on the Page

It was 1987, I was forty-seven years old, and I had just left my job at a struggling offshore drilling company. The slogan around the office was, “Fix it in 86 or Chapter 11 in 87.” 1986 had come and gone, and the future for the drilling industry still looked bleak.
I began a new job as vice president of human resources with a mortgage company—the largest, privately-held mortgage company in Texas—which had recently been bought by a New York financial institution. The vision for the firm was national expansion, using the deep pockets in New York through its new ownership. I felt good about the opportunity and was optimistic about my future.
I had been idealistic for most of my twenties and thirties and the remnants of my idealistic period were still intact. I believed the right thing to do—my version of right—would be to have my ideas immediately embraced by any intelligent management. Plus, I always wanted to impress my bosses and colleagues with an exhibition of my cutting-edge thinking. (Beware of your own ego!) So, I decided I would start out with something that demonstrated my forward thinking: I would recommend a policy regarding how to deal with employees diagnosed with AIDS.

At the time, AIDS had just become an emotional issue in America. Not many people knew much about the disease,–how it was contracted or how it spread. The most common belief was that AIDS was a gay disease and you would be best served by avoiding anyone who had it. People most feared catching it, but had no idea if it was fatal or depilating — all most people knew to believe was that it was “gay.”

Knowing that you couldn’t get the disease by casual contact, I decided that my policy, in its simplest form, should be to treat employees with AIDS as you would treat employees with any medical condition. Oh yeah, did I mention I wasn’t only idealistic, but I was also naïve? Well I was.
The day came to “show off” my progressive attitude. It was Monday morning, the day the management committee always got together for its meetings. It came my turn to discuss issues I felt were appropriate for the committee. I started with a brief introduction to the topic and then passed out the one-page policy I’d come up with.   Every member of the committee handled the stack the same way: by placing two fingers on as little of the page as possible. It was as if the letters on the page contained the AIDS virus in camouflage. They must have believed they were about to become victims.
My proposal failed miserably, as you might imagine. Being as inexperienced I was, I hadn’t given my audience much consideration: the committee was composed of all white males in their forties, many of whom were probably homophobic and not interested in the science of AIDS. Not only would they not approve the policy, they instructed me to do the opposite of what I’d suggested: fire any employee who was found to have the deadly disease. Fortunately, I never had to cover for anyone.
This was an example of leadership failure—my own.  For one thing, I should have reviewed my thinking with the president before I held a single meeting. For another, I should have suggested that we invite a doctor to provide some education, to combat all the misinformation and emotional energy that surrounded the disease. If that phase went well, then I could have met with the committee members individually to get sign-off before giving a formal presentation. It’s never a good idea to bring an issue to a management team you don’t know will be approved.
Underlying this failure was my ego, naiveté, and desire to impress. Ego was my biggest enemy in that case. When you are in a staff position, your power lies in your ability to influence, not exercise authority. Influence is indirect power. It’s usually best to let go of your ego and focus on the needs of the organization. Then you can construct a strategy that maximizes the chances of success.
To design and implement a successful strategy, you must first grasp all the underlying forces at work, such as the personalities of the decision makers and interoffice dynamics that might be at play. In this case, and for all leaders, the biggest underlying force was the people. Self-insight is the most powerful leadership attribute that any leader can possess. My ego was in the way of my own self-awareness. And if you miss that insight, you will become the biggest underlying force of all.
Douglas Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Christian University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at