Conversations in Management: Humility

“Pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real.”

 Thomas Merton.

Lawn_MowingOn any given day during the summer months, my neighborhood is alive with the sound of grass being cut. Fleets of pickups cruise the streets transporting crews of workers and equipment from yard to yard. These pros can mow, edge and blow a yard in 15 minutes—sometimes less—before moving on to their next assignment. But it wasn’t always like this. When I was a boy (libelously rumored to have been during the Coolidge administration) mowing and other seasonal tasks like leaf raking and snow shoveling were the province of kids. It was our way of acquiring folding money during a period when stingy allowances were measured in quarters and state law kept us from more lucrative employment.

Like the other kids, I had my yards, but being of an entrepreneurial disposition, I didn’t hesitate to accept a short-term commission from Mr. Schwenke. The Schwenke’s were an older couple whose house sat apart from the others in the neighborhood. Because their children were grown and long gone, they remained shadowy characters to us kids. They were preparing to move to Florida. I’d been hired as a replacement to mow their lawn during their final weeks of occupancy. Schwenke was known to be a difficult employer but I knew my predecessor as well and suspected that when he was let go, it wouldn’t be the last time in his life he’d hear the words, “You’re fired!”

In those days we used the homeowner’s equipment. When Schwenke introduced me to his Toro he was insistent that I not run over any rocks. Not being in the habit of mowing rocks, I quickly agreed to this condition of employment. Later it seemed a curious insistence because I never saw a rock in his yard in danger of being mowed. On the other hand, if the grass was the least bit damp, the Toro would stall with a noise that sounded like you were mowing a gravel pit. The last day I was to cut the grass it had been raining and I told Mr. Schwenke that I thought the yard was too wet to mow. Taking me for a slacker, he ordered me to mow anyway and particularly warned about hitting any rocks as he just had the blade sharpened. After just a few minutes the Toro stalled out with that horrible noise. After two more stalls, Schwenke raced from his house swearing at me for hitting all those rocks. I tried to explain but was summarily fired and ordered off the property. I returned the mower to the garage, cleaned the undercarriage, wiped the whole thing down and headed home.

Twenty minutes later Mr. Schwenke called, “I saw you cleaned the mower before you left and that the blade wasn’t damaged.” “That’s right, sir,” I replied. “But I heard you hitting the rocks.” At that I explained the characteristics of his Toro. “You tried to tell me, didn’t you? But I didn’t listen. I’m sorry,” he said evenly. He asked if I’d finish the job and I assented. Later, having been plied with ginger ale, pound cake and given a large tip I walked home—still processing that an adult had apologized to a kid. It was a tutorial in humility that’s stayed with me. As with many of life’s important lessons, I’ve applied this one both earnestly and haphazardly over the decades. But I’ve never forgotten for long that you need to listen even when you’re convinced you’re right and you need to say you’re sorry when you find out you were wrong. And just as importantly, you’re never too old or important to do either. Merton was right—humility keeps us real.     —Ebert

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