Surprising Lessons from the Back of a Garbage Truck

An excerpt from Transfluence

I took a work-hard, play-hard approach to my college years at Penn State. I put in the hours it took to make good grades, and I usually had a job, sometimes two, to help pay my way. But I also teetered on the edge of irresponsibility from time to time.

Sometimes I fell off that edge. Once I was actually thrown off.

It happened the summer I came home from college thinking that I might take a bit of a break from work.

My dad had other ideas.

“Get a job,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

“Put on your suit,” he told me, “and we’ll go find something.”

First, we went to the steel mills, and I put in a few applications. They all told me they didn’t have any openings, but they’d get back to me. Then we went to the city’s sanitation department—Dad heard they might be hiring garbage men for the summer. They looked me over and also said, “No.” And so it went.

That afternoon, after a tiring day of rejection by the city’s manual-labor industries, I decided to unwind at a party with some fraternity brothers from college. The unwinding involved a few kegs of beer, which allowed me to toast my failed job hunt with my buddies. They laughed at the thought of me showing up at the steel mills and sanitation department in a suit. And the toasting, laughing, and unwinding continued until I found my way home and passed out on the couch around 3 a.m.

I woke up thirty minutes later with a ringing in my ears. It was the phone.

“This is Pete from sanitation,” the voice on the other end said. “I need you to come in.”

“Gerry, don’t do this to me,” I said. “I need to get to sleep.”

Gerry Sacunas was one of my fraternity buddies, and I assumed he was the prankster making the call.

“No, no, no,” said the voice. “This is Pete. At the sanitation department.”

I hung up the phone and searched through bleary eyes for the number I had gotten during my interview. When I found it, I punched the numbers into our phone. “Hello, this is Pete,” said the man who answered. “You’re hired. I need you to be at work in an hour.”

Reluctantly, I got off the couch and reported to work. The supervisor looked me over suspiciously and asked the obvious: “Are you drunk?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Can you do the job?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He shrugged, pointed me toward a truck, and off I went with one of the crews. You know how celebrities often go by just one name? Cher…Bono…Sting…Madonna…Pitbull…. Well, this crew was sort of like that. I got first names or last names, but never both. Jimmy drove, and Patterson and I rode outside, standing on a ledge and hanging onto a handle. We went into neighborhoods and worked our way from house to house. Patterson and I would hop off at each home, empty the cans of trash into the back of our truck, and hop back on to go to the next house. We didn’t go very fast, except when we were between neighborhoods. Then the truck might hit speeds of up to fifty miles an hour.

“You OK,” Patterson said during one such stretch.

I wasn’t looking too good or feeling too good, but I nodded that I was fine. Then we rounded a curve, and the truth was revealed in dramatic fashion. I lost my grip, flew off the truck, and landed thirty feet later with a thud in someone’s front yard. It was painful, but I survived. Once Patterson and Jimmy determined I wasn’t dead, they laughed hysterically.

It didn’t take long for that story to become like folklore among all the other garbage men. I can’t say that was the proudest moment of my life, but it somehow endeared me to the other members of the team for the entire summer. I had unwittingly earned some credibility in their eyes. Those guys became my best pals. I wasn’t like them in many ways, but they took me under their wing for that summer. I can still say that picking up garbage was one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had.

These guys were real people. They were a bunch of good guys doing unglamorous work to make a living for their families. And the experience of working with them that summer stuck with me as a reminder that everyone you lead is human. They have friends. They have families. They have hobbies. They have dreams for their future. They experience joy. They experience pain. They make mistakes. And they do great things.

Working on that garbage truck reinforced an important lesson my parents modeled for me while I was growing up: there’s a basic level of respect we should give to everyone—a respect for their humanity. This is why “heart” is a core value in the microclimate of transfluence.

While humility is about how we see ourselves, our heart shapes how we see people and how people see us.

When they see us, do they see leaders who are human? Leaders who are vulnerable? Leaders who share in their struggles? Or do they see leaders who are condescending? Leaders who view themselves as above or better than those they lead? The great football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “to be a leader, you must be honest with yourself and know, as a leader, you are like everyone else, only more so.”104 No matter how big our salary or the size of our office, we all make mistakes, we all have troubles, we all want to experience joy, and we all have needs. When we lead with heart, we open a window into our souls and allow others to see us as we truly are—as human.

The flip side is that our heart also shapes how we see others. Are they just another “asset”? Are they an “expense”? A “number”? Or do we see them as something more? Do we see them as souls—flesh and bones with a mind, body, and spirit—not just in the way we think about them but in the way we treat them? How we see people drives how we treat them. When we respect people for who they are, not just what they do, we naturally treat them with kindness, compassion, and empathy.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from Transfluence: How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today’s Climates of Change by Walt Rakowich, copyright ©2020. Published by Post Hill Press, distributed by Simon & Schuster.

Lead with Transformative Influence

Transfluence shows leaders how they can have transformative influence by overcoming their fears and pride, building transparency into their leadership, developing a strong core of authentic values, and passionately pursuing a meaningful purpose. Available Now.

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