The year was 20-ought something. I would tell you it was the fault of my red, 1991 Chevy Beretta. That car kept me in trouble! The Texas highway patrol would probably blame it on my lead foot. In hindsight, I think chronic time-management issues were the truest culprit. Absolutely no one would have considered it a prime opportunity to develop my fledgling leadership skills, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be.
There are, more or less, three components to the traffic court experience: public shaming, restitution, and inconvenience. It’s a comprehensive approach. No one enjoys any of those things, and everyone harbors an intense hatred for at least one of them. It seems like a smart strategy on paper, but my own repeat offenses caused me to question its efficacy.
My Day in Court
My name was called, and I rolled up to humbly submit to the judge’s verbal flogging. At the end, he announced my sentence: a fine. That fine exceeded my budget the way my fast car had exceeded the speed limit.
This was obviously another administrative error. I kept my cool and reminded His Honor that I had requested the traffic school option to reduce my fine. He just as cooly reminded me that I had already exhausted my traffic school opportunities for the year.
After a few miserably failed attempts at bargaining, I was no longer feeling so cool and pleaded for community service as a means to foster personal development. I was hoping the tragic tale of my recently acquired degree and subsequent unemployment would seal the deal.
No dice. It was June, and all the community service slots were filled by various juvenile delinquents doing their time while school was out for the summer. So, a fine it was!
Defeated, I made my way back to my car, weighed down by the oppressive heat, the dread of my financial situation and the aggravation that comes with laying in a bed of one’s own making.
Serving the Community
The coffee shop I frequented hosted at least a half dozen of my ilk at any given time. There were more than a few sporadically working writers, a smattering of my fellow unemployed recent grads, and a handful of not-so-recent grads who were either still unemployed or unemployed again. All of whom were down on their luck, whether by circumstances or self-infliction.
It was from the leader of this battered confederation I learned it was possible to avoid paying a fine by volunteering to spend the equivalent amount of time in the county jail. I was relieved and elated. Since I had way more time than money, it seemed a miraculous alternative to begging cash off my family.
The next day, I rolled into the city jail, all presentable and personable, and stated my intentions. A mumbly phone call was made about how I didn’t “belong” there, and the next thing I knew, a community service slot had suddenly opened up.
Twenty-Five Hours of Hard Labor
Ancient layers of dust and cigarette ash gave the room an amber glow. It was hard to say if it covered the furniture or if the furniture was made from the stuff.
I was to serve my sentence in an outpatient drug rehab facility. Doing what, it was hard to say. The staff, if present, were indistinguishable from the clients. My fellow convicts were a band of wayward teens, most of whom were working off drug-related charges.
The lack of leadership left them to their own devices between the court-mandated meetings they attended. Often their heads bobbed sleepily through the endless parade of testimonials from addicts in various stages of recovery. Other times they listened intently and elbowed each other mischievously. They were clearly learning new and exciting ways to get into more trouble.
On days one and two, I planted myself on a dusty vinyl couch and tried to look attentive to anyone who might tell me what was expected of me. No one ever did.
Day three brought on an existential crisis through which I determined I was surely being experimented upon, and the actual punishment was the boredom itself! I brazenly knitted my way through days four and five for nothing more than self-preservation. No one batted an eye, except for my delinquent comrades who had already sniffed out my “squareness” like the highly-trained drug dogs that had likely landed them in the courthouse to begin with.
By the time my lunch “break” came around on Monday, I was in a funk. My general outlook had been aggressively infiltrated by the golden-brown haze that draped over the facility to which I was indentured, weighted by the lost hopes and dreams of it’s clientele. This situation was rapidly devolving into a battle for my mental health.
I returned from lunch on a mission. I found a mop, bucket and a broom in a cobwebbed closet and got busy. The next day, I supplemented with an arsenal of supplies from home…because there were layers.
Putting Leadership into Community Service
I began to notice the kids approaching one at a time and hanging about awkwardly. I handed each a rag or a scrub brush and offered suggestions on how and where they should employ it. Fortunately for us, it didn’t take much effort to start seeing positive results. The remarkable transformation was inspirational.
Maybe it was a newfound appreciation for work. Maybe it was only the effect of chemical fumes from the industrial-strength cleaners, but the kids kept at it. In hindsight, I’ve wondered if all they needed was an opportunity to show they weren’t worthless. In a couple of days we were lounging in the fruits of our collective labor.
A Leader is Born
The end of that week brought a surprise visitor. A woman we’d never seen before came to us with cake. She was from the courthouse. My work had been noticed. I was getting time off for good behavior!
With a mouthful of cake, one of them said to me, “Wait a minute… you don’t work here?!” It turned out they were working alongside me because they assumed I was the boss! I had never issued demands or exercised this perceived authority in any way. My initiative, encouragement and facilitation had drawn them in.
One girl smiled, cracking her black, goth lipstick as she recounted how silently impressed she’d been at my willingness to participate instead of just passing out chores.
Much hindsight of that experience has gifted me with not only an awareness of my own leadership skills and potential that no one would have ever credited me with but a renewed vision of what an effective leader can look like.
It’s not about wielding authority and keeping people under your thumb. It’s about giving people a chance to develop skills, offering opportunity and vision, a clear path to that achievement, and helping them get there.
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