The Devil is in the Details
The line was 15 people deep outside the DMV when I arrived to renew my license and get my REAL ID. According to the paperwork I’d received from the Secretary of State, Illinois residents will need the REAL ID to board domestic flights beginning October 1, 2021.
I’d spent some time the day before collecting the various documents of identification as listed on the form. As I waited in line, I watched a DMV employee go from person to person to see what service they needed.
Some people left the line after talking with the employee because they were missing required documentation. I noticed the employee’s style. He was stern and took no guff from anyone.
I smugly thought about my strength of being detail-oriented and knew I had everything I needed.
Only I didn’t.
When the employee got to me, I told him I was there to get a REAL ID. He rifled through my documents and asked if I’d ever been married.
When I confirmed that there is a Mr. Bianco to whom I said “I do” many years ago, he told me I needed my marriage certificate in addition to the other documents I brought.
I was shocked. I didn’t see that anywhere on the paperwork I had received in the mail. He pointed it out on that very same document, and his voice got louder as his tone became harsher.
Suddenly I was feeling anything but smug. Shame crept up in me as I thought about the others in line listening to our conversation. Little Miss Detail was being called out.
I told the man I hadn’t seen the marriage license requirement on the form and would simply renew my license rather than get the REAL ID. He repeatedly pointed to the statement on the form while stating he never understands why people don’t see it because, “It’s right there!”
Those Details Weren’t Going to Get the Best of Me
In that moment, I thought about how I wanted to show up and how I wanted to feel while doing so.
I had been feeling smug. Then I moved to shame. Neither emotion is what I wanted to feel yet both felt familiar.
In the past, I’d gone from smugness to shame multiple times especially when receiving unflattering feedback.
This time I wanted it to be different. This time I wanted to practice what I preach and show up as a leader.
I spoke calmly while thinking of my commitment to respond rather than react in moments like this one.
“I’m not sure why you’re speaking to me like this. I didn’t see the marriage license requirement on the form. I know your job is hard, and I respect that. I’ll simply renew my license today and get the REAL ID another time.”
He continued, “What I’m saying is no one ever sees it, and it’s right there!” More pointing.
The employee then directed me inside the building and told me which line I was to stand in.
I stood in line thinking about the encounter I’d just had outside.
Had I shown up as a leader?
Was my smugness apparent to everyone else as much as it was to me?
Did my shame make me shrink as I’d allowed it to do in the past?
Was I respectful and calm in the midst of the exchange?
Was I the person I WANT to be and not the one I’d resorted to being so many times before?
The Great Fortune of Leadership Lessons
I was caught up in my self-assessment when someone touched my arm. It was the employee.
He smiled and said, “My job’s not so bad. I just get tired of saying the same thing over and over day after day. And guess what? The REAL ID requirement has been postponed two more years. You’re good.”
I thanked him and told him I get it. Because I do. Work—and life—can be hard.
I waited in line for close to an hour and had time to reflect on the leadership lessons my DMV visit brought to light:
- A response (thinking before you speak) always beats a reaction (letting the first words in your mind fall right out of your mouth).
- Feelings of shame, smugness, and frustration are all normal parts of the human experience. Being aware of them (and how you decide to manage your way through them) is an important aspect of leading yourself and others.
- Tense situations happen. Consciously speaking in a calm manner can eliminate the tension so a better outcome is achieved.
- Respect is universal. Whether you’re the CEO, the subordinate, or the customer, respect is always the winning choice.
- Humans make mistakes. They don’t always admit them. My DMV visit showed me the great power of apologies. Sometimes they’re spoken. Sometimes they come through actions. Regardless, an apology is as nice to give as it is to receive.
And a Positive DMV Conclusion
I walked out of the DMV through a separate exit door and made a point to walk back around to the entrance. The employee was busily helping those in line. I saw him glance my way and continue his work. He was doing his job and also perhaps hoping I’d be on my merry way.
I waited. Patiently. And through the apprehension I was feeling.
Eventually he asked if I needed something else.
“Yes,” I replied. “I wanted to thank you for your help today. I do appreciate it.”
I saw his shoulders relax, and a smile spread across his face. And then in a still-somewhat-COVID world, my DMV friend gave me a high five.
I walked away feeling we’d likely both learned some valuable leadership lessons today.