Bolea Corporate Leadership TrainerWhen I was 29 years old I started a leadership journey and it occurred over a 15-minute period when I adopted the behaviors of a leader.  

In 1983, I worked for a coal mining company and was transferred into the corporate planning department as a budget analyst. The company had five divisions and I was assigned to the Illinois Division. A week into my new job, and during the annual budget review meeting, the CEO of the company called on the Illinois Division VP to present his budget proposal. I had helped the VP’s team prepare his budget presentation. About ten minutes into the presentation the CEO said that he had heard enough and told the VP to sit down. The VP just stood there and asked to get through his project proposals. The CEO responded, “Sit down before I knock you down; I already cut all of your projects.” The VP said, “But we need a couple of those projects just to keep the division running.” The CEO stood up and screamed, “Say another word and I will ream you a new asshole.”  The VP sat down and said nothing.

The room was motionless and quiet. Everyone just sat there waiting for the CEO to do or say something. One of the projects that was just cut was a pilot program to retrofit an existing underground coal mine with the latest technology called longwall mining. I was thinking about the longwall project and how I was going to explain to the Illinois team that it never got a fair hearing, as I had promised. I thought about that promise probably 50 times in the moment, over and over again, until in what seemed like an uncontrollable volcanic rupture I spoke, “Sir, can I ask you to reconsider the longwall pilot in Illinois?” From the increased silence in the room I sensed that everyone had just stopped breathing. The CEO screamed, “Who’s speaking?”  I said, “It’s me sir, Al Bolea” and for some reason I stood up. At that moment I could hear the thump, thump, thump of the blood pumping through my body and I sensed trouble ahead. The CEO blurted, “Who the f..k is Al Bolea?” Out of my mouth came, “I’m the new analyst;” it was all I could say. He was getting animated with arms moving in the air. “What gives you the right to tell me how to run my coal mining company?” I managed a nervous mutter, “I would never do that.”  He barked even louder, “How many times have you taken a shit in a coal mine?”  Speechless, I said, “never sir.”  He motioned with his hand and said, “Then you better sit down and shut up.”

It was like an alien had entered my body and taken over my mouth when I said, “Sir, that longwall pilot is an excellent project and the technology has already been proven in coal mines in the UK. Our underground mines have the ideal conditions for the application. The manufacturer will fund 50 percent of the cost and if successful the new technology will position us at the low end of the supply curve—we would become the most profitable coal mining company in the US.” The CEO jumped to his feet, glared at me and then looked around the room and said, “disgusting.” And he walked out of the room.

No one would look at me, and it was a good thing because I was holding back tears and any eye contact would have started a waterfall. I walked to my office thinking about the fool that I just made of myself. I knew it was over for me and I was going to be fired. I sat down at my desk and felt a lump forming in my throat and realized that it was hard to breathe.  

That was when I heard it. The door opened into our office area and a voice said to the secretary, “Where does Bolea sit?” I knew that voice. It was the CEO’s and I could hear him walking toward my office. Suddenly, he was standing in my doorway with his right arm raised. I’m thinking, “He’s going to punch me.” I was paralyzed as he walked over to the desk about to land the punch. I braced myself for the impact as he laid his arm on my shoulder and said, “Nice job Bolea. It took a lot of courage to speak into that room and you showed a lot of integrity. You never backed down and you described a future for the company that I had not considered.” As he walked out the door he said, “I wanted you to be the first to know that I approved the longwall project.”

I was stunned. I had gone from near fainting for fear of losing my job to the elated state of a conquering warrior. Within minutes people were walking into my office congratulating me. My boss took me to lunch to talk about my future with the company. At the end of the week I got a phone call from a headhunter in Salt Lake City. He wanted to meet the guy who stood up to the infamous CEO and survived. Within two weeks I got a job offer from one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. They offered me a 100 percent pay increase and I accepted the job. My career took off when I joined the new company. After a year I was inducted into the company’s executive development program and there was no looking back. I had a great career with a great company and retired at an executive level after 23 years of service in the US and the UK.

Over the years, I would often think about that time with the CEO when I was 29 years old. I knew that experience changed me—I had been transformed—but I never understood how. The CEO’s words played over and over in my head: “It took a lot of courage to speak into that room and you showed a lot of integrity too. You described a future for the company that I had not considered.”

Courage, speaking, integrity, and future, somehow those four words were part of my transformation. Years later I met Peter Thomas, an author and motivational speaker. He said, “You become what you value.”  Is that what happened to me? Did I value courage, speaking, integrity, and the future, and I became those things? I thought this for several years until I read Richard Wiseman’s, The As If Principle. Richard says, “You value what you become.” I started my leadership journey when I was 29 years old because my behavior that day with the CEO caused me to value being courageous, speaking to people, always operating from a position of integrity, and being focused on the future and never the past.