Lessons from the Blugold
Over the past 5 years, as I put together notes for this book, looking for real-life examples of leadership in action, + and -, I knew the toughest part of the writing experience would be the introduction. From the Harvard MBA manuals to the Managing for Dummies series, they all had clever come-ons and insightful examples, with heavily researched statistical analysis.
I promised mine would be different. I wanted to include real-life people. The good examples I will recognize by name, the butt-heads will go unnamed, but if they read real close they will certainly recognize themselves, loud and clear.
To begin, I’d like to go back in time. Let’s take the “wayback” machine to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the site of a university located in the central part of the state. UWEC is known for lots of stuff, some of it even related to a strong academic environment. I may get to the Tornado Watch and the spring Rod and Gunners a bit later.
Back in 1968, when I transferred in as a junior, the country was in the middle of the Viet Nam “conflict” and the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had a son who was leading the anti-war movement on the UWEC campus. Priceless!!
The weekends were an Animal House blur, capped off with Sunday Packer’s football follies.
Intertwined in these events came Frank Herremann, a Madison-area transplant, and my first “leadership” guru. To most Frank was an enigma. He managed the university student union, the Blugold. To this day no one in the UWEC family knows what a Blugold is. Perhaps it is a cheese-head version of Sasquatch.
Few people really knew Frank, other than the fact that he was the little guy at the Blugold who drove the yellow Corvette convertible with the top down, 365 days a year. Quite a feat when you consider that in Central Wisconsin they have 10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet could convince Frank to put the top up on his beloved “vette”.
During the winter breaks Frank recruited me to help with major cleaning projects. As a student employee, I focused on evening cleaning activity, to include tons of newpapers, endless cigarette butts, and periodic unmentionables. The life of the student janitor is never dull.
Most of you went through school looking straight past the janitors. My hero is the janitor in the movie “The Breakfast Club”. He knew all, and so did we, from who was dating who in the Tri Sigs, to who in the TKE's just flunked out.
When the winter break came around we shut down the Blugold for two weeks, stacked the tables and chairs, and stripped and refinished the floors. To this day they shine. The cleaning process, while routine, gave me a chance to watch a true craftsman. Frank excelled at all janitorial tasks, from stripping the floors through the waxing phase. Once we completed the prepping phases the real trick was the buffing process. This is where Frank really shined (pardon the pun).
He secured the power buffer from the main campus and together we attacked the Blugold floor. This was no small task. Visualize an area 50’/100’. This was a serious buff job.
Here was a 5’3” guy, sliding along like Fred Astaire without Ginger Rogers; one hand on the machine, one hand holding his ever-present cigarette. He was like Picasso with a power buffer. I marveled at his technique; smooth, effortless, and totally trusting the 200 pound machine.
Here was my first lesson in humility. I pressured Frank to let me take over the buffer. Certainly I could do just as good a job as this little old man. I mean, how tough can it be. Frank did it one handed. After much angst Frank finally succumbed. He walked me through the introductory techniques. Techniques, Schmechniques!! Watch me make this baby dance
I blew off Frank’s suggestions and he turned me loose, much like Mr. Miagi did with the Karate Kid. I flipped the switch and all hell broke loose. I might as well have been riding a bucking bronco on the World Rodeo Tour. That sucker took off and the harder I fought it the worse it fought back. I barely missed the large double entry doors, I bounced off the marble pillars and I took a chunk out of some to the baseboard molding. The more I fought it the worse things got.
Mercifully, after about 45 seconds of chaos, Frank ended the affair by pulling the plug from the wall. I stood there, totally embarrassed, and all Frank did was smile. What did he know that I didn’t?
Frank inched toward me, taking a long drag from his cigarette. He knew just what to say, and when. He put his hand on my shoulder and blessed me with my first "Leadership Ah Ha",
I wish I could say I processed that into my leadership memory bank right away but it took me several years to realize the wisdom of Frank’s words. It really hit home when, in 1982, a former colleague and I developed an adult learning model called “Guided Discovery”. It was then that Frank’s message really made sense. People are like that buffer. Force them with your “position power” because you are the boss and they will fight you all day. If instead you guide them through the day-to-day operations, using your “personal power”, allowing them to self-discover while providing them with a safe, continuous learning environment, they will perform like that smooth running buffer.
This book includes lots of my personal ah ha’s and hopefully it spurs you to also do some soul searching.
As a postscript to the “Blugold Buffer” lesson, in 1971 I had the misfortune of going on active duty and was assigned to Army basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Known as Tigerland, this was, and probably still is, the least liked military base in the US. It is a pit but it was my pit for 6 months.
While in basic training one of the weekly assignments was to spit shine the tile floors in the barracks. Without going into the gory details let’s just say it involved lots of elbow grease and painful backs. It was brutal and time consuming. One day while we were cussing out the drill sergeant we discovered a closet that contained a weird looking piece of equipment. There sat an industrial strength power buffer!!
The “Circle of Life” returns. We slid the beast out of its lair and pushed the bunks off to the slides. I stoked it up and off we flew. Frank would have been proud. After about 15 minutes some of the younger guys in the platoon wanted to show their stuff. One young buck, a defensive lineman from the University of Kansas, decided it was time for him to take over. Disregarding my words of wisdom and offers of guidance, he told me to step aside and he would show us how to do it.
It was not a pretty sight. With footlockers flying and bunks tipping, the machine took over and as we all now know, you can’t fight it. I finally did my best Frank imitation, pulled the plug, and with cigarette in hand, I strolled over to the lad and said, “Steve, you have to guide it, you can’t force it. Next time, let’s work together to make this a win/win for everyone”. Hopefully Frank heard those words from wherever he was watching.
As we move into the book, talking about real-life people in real-life situations, please don’t look for extensive statistical analyses and chi square comparisons. W. Edwards Deming I am not. What I am is a pretty good student of human nature and an observer/trainer/adult educator who can translate real-life into leadership/management Ah Ha’s that you can take back to the office.
If you are ready, let’s go. If not, hopefully you will remember Frank the next time you have a leadership challenge. It isn’t rocket science, but it does require common sense, which may not be so common.