Leadership is about relationships and enduring leadership success requires trust. These are two principles of Communication-Based Leadership, the framework my colleagues and I at North of Center use to guide our work in leader and team development. When coaching clients, we teach them to apply these principles as a way to develop a mindset that leadership is a lifestyle.
I recently experienced these in a deeply personal and unexpected way.
I was helping an old friend dig a grave.
A Bittersweet Homecoming
On the morning of March 8, my dad Melvin passed away. He woke early for a normal bathroom break, crawled back into bed, and nodded thanks to my mom for tucking him back in. Then he settled peacefully back to sleep for the last time.
I got the call at my home in Florida and immediately headed back to Texas to help my mom and sisters with the arrangements.
Joseph was my closest friend growing up. His dad, Frankie, had lived comfortably in a local nursing home for the previous six months. Joseph visited Frankie the day after Melvin died, and I’m sure Frankie was aware. They were lifelong friends as well and had shared countless good times together. That night, Frankie lay down for an after-dinner nap and, like my own dad, did not wake again.
Over thirty years ago, Frankie was our first boss as the area gravedigger. A few years ago, Joseph took over the family gravedigging business. But I spent the last 30 years as an Air Force officer and pilot.
Frankie had been like a second dad to me, and Joseph remains a true friend, so I extended an offer to assist him. The next morning, he and I went to the cemetery to dig a grave for his dad.
A Solemn Task
My intent that morning was to stay out of the way. I was really just offering emotional support to a dear friend and seeking some degree of solace in his companionship.
Digging a grave is a solemn task, and a precise one that leaves little room for error amidst the surrounding headstones and grave markers.
Grave digging was Frankie’s business. Now it is Joseph’s. It had been more than 30 years since I’d done the job, but we were a team back then and had trusted each other to do the work properly, safely, and respectfully. It can be dangerous work of course, but there is an order to how it goes that makes the turns and twists and sparks and clouds of dust somewhat predictable.
Joseph used a backhoe to remove a couple tons of earth, rock, and roots, then loaded it into a dirt buggy towed behind his Dodge Ram pickup.
The dirt buggy is the same one we used years ago when we were just kids. It was old then. Seems ancient now. The bed lifts with a basic hydraulic pump powered by a car battery that had been charging off the truck’s engine as he did the digging.
I’d seen the buggy run hundreds of times before – back in the 80s!
We had run it momentarily when we picked it up. I had seen the connections, the safety devices, and how to work the truck through rough starts and stops to get the dirt out when raised.
Then the moment arrived … the buggy was full.
Trust is a Powerful Thing
Without a word, Joseph pitched me the keys and nodded toward the excess dirt pile.
We’d fallen into the rhythm of an experienced team built on trust.
Unloading the dirt buggy involved driving the truck and buggy through the cemetery, dumping the earth, then backing the rig carefully along the narrow path for about 150 feet, being careful to maneuver through gravesites and headstones without damaging ground sacred to others.
It made me nervous, but I didn’t think twice about it. I got it done without any significant problems or mishaps.
After another couple cycles like that, we were done. We returned to our families to share memories, to mourn, to handle matters both emotional and mundane.
It wasn’t until later that I realized the significance of the gift of trust Joseph had given to me.
Leaders Understand the Gift
I share the principles of Communication-Based Leadership with my coaching clients and emphasize that trust must be given freely. That it cannot be demanded or expected. That it must be built over time through credibility and words and actions that are consistent and aligned with each other. And that, once shared, trust strengthens bonds that will survive time and distance and hardship.
Despite more than 30 years having passed since Joseph and I last dug a grave together, our trust in each other remains. Our shared credibility enabled him to welcome me back as a trusted member of his team without hesitation.
I think our dads would have liked that.