When I was a teenager, I worked at a quaint little coffee shop. It brought together two of my passions: coffee and people. I’ve always said being a barista is like being a bar tender without the alcohol – you have your regulars, you know what they drink and often have it ready for them before they get up to the counter, you build a rapport with them, they learn to trust you, and before long they are spilling their life stories and struggles. I’ve had some pretty heavy conversations in the span of a few minutes before someone’s daily cup of joe. I’ve had people tell me that I am easy to talk to, so this may be something to do with it, but I have a feeling most baristas have similar experiences.
It took courage and some tact to learn exactly how to deal with this level of interaction. My Social Anxiety Disorder can make any interactions painful for me, but working as a barista helped me learn how to internalize those feelings and focus on the people I was serving. I wasn’t just handing them a coffee or latte or mocha…I was handing them a piece of sunshine in what might be an otherwise frustrating day. My smile or words of encouragement might be the last ones they receive for a while. I took that very seriously. We all know the importance of getting a day started off on the right foot!
Over time, I developed what you might call a portfolio of regulars. They were mine. I had several people who would only let me make their drink. Was it because I was some award winning barista who made a better latte than anyone else? Of course not. It was because I cared. For example, the lady who wanted her mint mocha with only a quarter pump of mint and a half pump of chocolate, 190 degrees, and with absolutely no foam, knew that I cared enough to make sure her drink was correct AND that I would ask how her son was doing in school. The man who wanted his breve with three quarters steamed half-and-half, a quarter steamed 2% milk, five shots of espresso, and filled to a specific level in his travel mug, knew that I cared enough to make it right every time AND ask how his job was.
Why am I telling you all this? Because in spite of my depression and my anxieties about so many, many different things, I can still show people that care. Just because I struggle with mental illness, this does not mean I am incapable of being a loving and kind individual. Some people hear of certain mental illnesses and believe that individual is defined by their illness and incapable of any other emotions or kindness towards other people. I know people do that because I have been guilty of that plenty of times.
Now let me tell you another story from my coffee shop days. When I started training to become a supervisor, I was paired up with another supervisor so he could mentor me through my first few months of the new position. To this day, Glenn remains one of the most positive and caring individuals I have ever known. He went out of his way to make people laugh and to ensure that everyone was taken care of. I was always inspired by the way in which he interacted with both his coworkers and the customers.
Only about a week or so into my training and mentorship, I had just gotten home from work when my phone rang. It was a team member named Hannah. She said, “Please come back! I think Glenn is having a seizure and I don’t know what to do!” I rushed back to work. As I walked in the door, the paramedics were walking out, with Glenn on a pram. He was in a daze, yet still managed a smile as they all rolled by me. As a brand new supervisor who had barely gone through any training, I had to calm down the customers, clean up the blood in the back room where Glenn had hit his head or bit his tongue and bled profusely, as well as run the shop with a traumatized Hannah until our manager was able to make his long drive into work. Let me tell you…my already fragile nerves were shot by the end of that day.
The next day, my manager asked if I could go to the hospital to pick Glenn up and take him home. I was honestly surprised he didn’t have anyone else to come pick him up (surely someone as vibrant as Glenn would have a million friends to call), but I was happy to do so. On the way back to his house, Glenn opened up to me, saying that they believed the seizure had been caused by some medication he had just started. I remember asking him what kind of medication would cause a seizure. He said it was a medication his psychiatrist prescribed for depression. I couldn’t believe it. I would never have guessed that Glenn struggled with depression. I was also incredibly naïve at the time and thought that only people who were truly “crazy” took medication for mental issues (I had yet to really, truly explore my own). I remember looking at him differently then, thinking that he must be faking all that positivity and kindness he always displayed. Surely if he took medication because his depression was so bad, he couldn’t be genuinely happy and kind toward others, right?
It’s kind of embarrassing to tell you that I thought that way. As I said, I was incredibly naïve, did not yet understand much about mental illness, and only knew what I saw in movies. I think we can all agree that Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness is not always spot on. All that being said, Glenn launched into telling me his own story, which did a great job educating me in a hurry. That was the first time I realized how debilitating and devastating clinical depression can be. Glenn was the good and positive person I always perceived him to be, yet he had this demon that continually clawed its way to the surface and tried to snuff out the light that was my mentor. He had turned to medication as a last resort, but he and his doctor were struggling to find the right combination of medication (boy, do I understand that struggle now!).
Why am I telling you all this? As a reminder that mental illness, or taking medication for mental illness, does not define us. Glenn is a poster child for remaining kind and loving, in spite of wanting to die inside from extreme depression. Although he was masking his depression, he wasn’t faking that kindness or desire to make other people happy. That’s truly who he was. He knew and understood how life threatening depression can be, so he did his best to make sure other people knew how important they are.
I have one more story about Glenn. This has stuck with me for well over a decade and remains a pivotal part of my world view and approach to life, work, etc. One day when we were sitting at a table in the coffee shop, drinking coffee and discussing leadership, Glenn said to me, “Amber, to be a good leader you only have to remember two things. The first is this: a good leader always leads by example. If you are unwilling to do certain things, you can’t expect your staff to do it either. They should be able to watch you and learn from you, rather than just being told by you how or why to do something. The second and most important thing is this: you must remember that you are there for your employees, not the other way around. Your job is to make them successful. As a leader, you must do everything in your power to make it possible for them to do their job efficiently and successfully. They are not there to advance your career or make you appear more successful. Remember those two things and you will be a great leader.”
To this day, I still use that criteria to not only hold myself accountable as a leader, but also to determine if my own managers or higher ups are quality or not. More than that, though, I took that criteria to heart and applied it to my daily life. We should all lead by example. This, to me, is integrity. Vocabulary.com explains integrity in this way: “Having integrity means doing the right thing in a reliable way. It’s a personality trait that we admire, since it means a person has a moral compass that doesn’t waver. It literally means having ‘wholeness’ of character, just as an integer is a ‘whole number’ with no fractions” (Integrity, n.d.). Don’t be a fraction, people! Being a good person, as well as a good leader, requires integrity and the strength to not break when pushed to do something that would betray either yourself or anyone else. It is Glenn’s second point that has always stood out to me, though. Remembering that we are there for others, rather than the other way around, can truly alter how we live our daily life and interact with others at work or any other environment in which we are leaders. Stop using others. They aren’t stepping stones to get you where you want to be. Grant yourself permission to be there for other people and your life will change along with theirs.
Integrity. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/integrity