It's Friday afternoon, and this has been one of the most exhilarating weeks of my entire life. I've always enjoyed leading this kind of training, but this was the first time I was TOTALLY in charge of the theme, the speakers, the program, EVERYTHING. As project director, the success or failure of the week rested completely on my shoulders, and there were times in the days leading up to the workshop when I just wanted to hop in the Land Cruiser, floor it all the way to Kampala, and fling myself across the nose of the next KLM plane back to Dulles.
Basically, I got fed up with having to make decisions. BIG decisions. Should we buy an electrical inverter, to replace the noisy, smelly generator? Where will we find hotel rooms for the Minister of Internal Affairs and his assistant, a Ugandan Army captain who could probably have me shot if I failed to meet his expectations? What am I going to do now that the man I hired to paint our sign and banner has turned out to be a lying, thieving half-wit?
And here is the biggest question of all: "When, oh WHEN am I just going to accept that I am in no way, shape or form management material??????"
I have never, EVER wanted to be somebody's boss. Perhaps that's why I never scaled the heights of corporate America, or rose through the ranks of some media conglomerate.
Power simply has never been a personal goal of mine, and recently, I've started
to wonder if maybe, when you drown out all my vows to help save the world, I'm just
a lazy, good-for-nothing, aging slacker.
I remember almost having a seizure when I heard that one of my former colleagues at the Detroit Free Press had become managing editor at some big midwestern newspaper....were both 39. At 39, I was freelancing, working part time for National Public Radio, and barely able to pay rent, having spent the past 4 years trying to launch the Child Wire News Service. I'd come up with this plan to create a news service that would be devoted exclusively to children's issues, and had gotten lots of good feedback about the idea. I even got a planning grant from a major foundation to develop a business plan for the concept.
Everybody LOVED the idea, but nobody was willing to write me a 2 million dollar check to make it happen. So I shelved the business plan and went back to freelancing and part-time at NPR. I was living in a basement apartment, under a family of people who I believe til this day must have all had wooden prosthetic legs. It was dark and cluttered and slightly musty in that basement apartment, and the last thing I needed to read about one afternoon was that a former colleague my very own age had just become a "MANAGING EDITOR."
A few months later, September 11th, 2001 happened. Three weeks later, I turned 40. It was about that time I made my most serious venture into the realm of cognitive behavioral therapy, because frankly, all I was able to do when I was not at NPR was inhale Hostess powered donuts and watch TV Land. I felt like such an abject loser.
And now, here I am 6 years later, a PROJECT MANAGER in Gulu, Uganda. I mean, it would be a Big Deal if anybody over here gave a fat rat's ass about that title. Over here, I'm just a mouthy, uptight, impatient black American witch.
At least that's what my assistant V. must think about me. I finally had to have "The Talk" with her...one I've been dreading for weeks. V. is 34, pleasant, funny, a bit rough around the edges, but certainly a good person. But the poor woman has absolutely no short term memory. I ask her to do something for me, and then 10 minutes later, she has to be reminded what it was. Information just eludes her, po' thang. Now, in one way, I shouldn't really rag on her about it, because if they ever need a poster girl for the Early Alzheimer's Association, I'm available.
But when V. forgets something, I am ROYALLY screwed. In a gi-NORMOUS way. And it's happened way too many times since we've started working together. Now, I've spent lots of time debating with myself over whether I should say anything. In fact, I've agonized over it.....my conscience would be absolutely destroyed if I were to cause an African professional woman to lose her livelihood. And talk about the bad Karma I'd rack up....I'd probably wind up being reincarnated as a toilet seat at a gas station along the Kampala-Gulu Road, or something.
Still, I HAD to do it. So I called her into an office and shut the door. I started out with the old "Help ME help YOU do a better job" routine. Basically, I told her I needed to be able to depend on her to handle some of the administrative load around here....AND do it CORRECTLY. Did she need to write things down in a diary? Should I send her e-mails after every conversation we have? What was it that I could do to help her succeed, I queried?
She said I'm an uptight, impatient shrew who stresses her out. We hashed out a few other points, and then she started crying.
To my amazement, I was absolutely unmoved. At first, I thought maybe I'd start crying myself, or apologize profusely, or run around the desk to pat her shoulder. But I didn't feel like doing any of that. Actually, as she mopped her eyes, I had this strange sensation of power. I was a MANAGER, somebody who had to be standing foursquare wherever the buck stopped. I had to make sure the Minister of Internal Affairs had his coffee, and the generator had enough diesel fuel, and the reporter from Lira understood the difference between a feature story and a news story, and take the Land Cruiser in for service, and hire a "fixer" to travel with us to the Pagak IDP camp, and be sure that the snacks were there once we got back from the field, and pass out the per diems, and make sure one of the two guys who'd had to share a room finally got one of his own........
I could go on, and on, and on, and on, and on. But in that instant I could finally empathize with all of the worst bastards and fish-wives I've ever had for bosses, and it was weird, but intriguing. Sure, EVERY person who gets called on the carpet for poor performance feels bullied and victimized, I suppose. I know I've been called everything but a bald-headed child of God in some of my negative evaluations through the years.....even shed a few tears myself. But today, I finally understood what makes some managers capable of crushing an employee's fragile ego------at least the ones who don't make a sport of it every minute of every working day.
Basically, it happens when you have 24 hours to get a sign and a banner made for your government-funded workshop. You'll stop at nothing, pay any price, cuss out any lying, thieving half-wit weasel who dares impede your path. But yes...OH YES.....you WILL have your sign and banner!
It's called POWER, people. Besides, V. finally pulled herself together. And we both acknowledged that most of our problems are culturally-based. When I say I need something done right now, I don't mean after you've had a cup of tea, taken a nap, and herded the goats. I need it within the next, say, 5 or 10 minutes. Ugandans simply don't share my same concept of time. Nor that of any other creature on the face of the Earth. But that's just who they are.
Language is still a problem, too. Half the time when somebody calls me, I can't figure out more than a word or two of what they're saying. I'm sorry, but this pseudo-British, formal, African toned speech pattern just ain't falling lightly on my ears. Of course, most Ugandans can't make head nor tail of what I'm saying, either.
I ended my meeting with V. by telling her I like her. A lot. I actually DO. I added that I was willing to do whatever I could to make our relationship work. I acknowledged my flaws, and said I'd try to be more patient and less tense. (Got valium, anyone?) And then I went right back out to the conference room to start editing reporters' scripts.
How I managed it, I'm still not sure.