I’m not sure who got more out of our time together, Miguelito, my employees, or me. He was nine when I met him. Both of his parents were serious alcoholics. I was stationed overseas and living by myself in a modest two bedroom concrete house in the mountains.
Miguelito (Spanish for “Little Michael”), like the rest of my neighbors, spoke very little English. He taught me what it means to teach and to lead – without regard to language. He helped me to understand what it takes to lead without words – from the heart. He taught me that actions, honesty, and intent are more important than words when it comes to leading people. He gave me friendship in compensation – much more valuable than money.
He showed up at my little place frequently – which I assume was more hospitable than his own home down a windy, poorly paved road. There was little money for Miguelito, and while my military salary was meager, it was enough to get us something from McDonalds or a Chinese food place a town or two away. He watched a VHS video tape or two on my 11 inch TV over and over again as he ate. The rest of the time, he followed me around and asked me questions.
We often did things together when I was around the house. He helped me get to know some local plant and animal life. He told me stories about his town. He helped me mail letters from the post office when we went into town. He would throw things at me from time to time with the hope that I would chase him.
“Veinticinco… cincuenta… setenta y cinco… Un dólar…”
He counted the coins I had tossed into a bowl on the table I used for spare change. Miguelito was earning his keep by teaching me Spanish. That day, I was getting a counting lesson. When he was through, I scraped $4.75 off the table into an empty white envelope, folded it up, and put it in his pocket.
I asked him what he was doing. He said one word:
He said this word in perfect English. I asked him who’s money that was. He repeated:
The grin on his face told me he knew better, so I asked him a third time.
“Mine…” he repeated. “And yours.”
I asked him if he wanted that money. He said yes with an eager nod of his head. I told him he could have that money. I went on to say in my broken Spanglish:
There’s a bucket over there, some soap under the sink, and a hose outside. Wash my car & do a good job and you can keep that money. Is it a deal?
He agreed and went right to work. He washed my car. I inspected it. He washed it some more. He left with $4.75 in his pocket.
This arrangement went on for a few weeks. He knew to ask if he could wash my car. That meant he needed money.
One day, he ran up to the house all out of breath. “I need money,” he panted. “No time to wash the car.”
“Sure.” I said. “Come here.”
When he came closer, I took a notebook off the table. I wrote the date, the amount, and explained to him that he owed me $4.75. I extended him a credit and told him to come back tomorrow to wash my car – which he did. No further charge.
This relationship went on for several months. He racked up a good bit of credit, but he had money for school supplies, some candy, and a little spending money so he could have fun with his friends. I got a friend and several valuable lessons I fall back on during my career later in life. Here’s a few things I took away form my time with Miguelito:
- Lead from the heart. If you truly care about the person (or people) you are leading, it will have a profound effect on how well you lead.
- Leadership is a relationship. It’s not about telling people what to do, being obedient, or just getting the job done. It’s a continually evolving relationship between two or more people.
- Set boundaries. It doesn’t matter if you’re leading or being lead. The rules of engagement should be clear.
- If one party needs or wants more from the relationship, be prepared and respond with options that ultimately help everyone involved. Always seek win/win solutions. Again, this doesn’t matter if you’re the leader or the one being lead.
- It’s okay to renegotiate the deal. Miguelito was not shy about renegotiating his deal with me. I didn’t mind extending him credit because I knew he was good for his word. I also knew that in the end, exploring options like credit would make him a smarter young man.
I really don’t know what Miguelito is up to these days. He’d be about 25 or 26 years old now and may even have a kid or two of his own. I do know that many of my former employees have benefitted from what he taught my in those mountains. I remember he ran up to my car and gave me a photo as I was getting ready to ship out. I flipped it over as he ran away, and kept the feelings with me ever since.