“We are going to bring this company back from the brink,” were the last words of Harold’s opening speech, after being appointed as our new CEO. He liked to call himself “The Master,” even though neither his first nor last name started with an “M;” his total net profit had been declining for the past number of years; was hopeless with women, mocking any woman who wouldn’t give him the attention he craved; and couldn’t answer a serious question to save his life, waving his arms and ignorantly pivoting or calling the inquirer names, bullying the poor soul into submission and declaring that he was better because of his status. He believed in himself so much that, to him, everyone else was wrong, even if he couldn’t show any evidence that he was right.
I wasn’t sure what I was more worried about: that he was our CEO or that the majority of us had voted for him to be our CEO, which was a terrible move by our former boss, Noah, to allow us to vote for our new CEO. Noah must have believed that Samantha, the other contender, would easily have won the vote; and yet, that didn’t happen. The only reason that I could think of for Noah to ask us to vote was because he knew that Samantha wasn’t confident that she’d be a great CEO and wanted us to demonstrate to her that she had the support of the company; a strategy that clearly backfired. But what has happened has happened; and we had to play the hand we’d been dealt.
His first day on the job, Harold was strutting around the office, talking to anyone he felt like, distracting them from their work, and pretending that he knew who they were and what their job entailed. At the time, it was actually quite amusing, as colleagues would make fun of him, right to his face even, and him oblivious to the fact that he was the butt of their jokes. Eventually though, he caught on and fired those employees on the grounds that they weren’t “team players,” as he put it. Some of us couldn’t believe how fast our concerns were coming to life, as our office turned into a dictatorship with a tyrant who didn’t practice what he preached. The future looked so bleak, we thought we were facing the end.
I remember the first conversation I had with Harold. I was going over a presentation that our team had created to pitch a plan for a new project, when he and his assistant, Kacie, came by my booth, stopped me and asked me to explain the project to him. I was a nervous wreck: sweating profusely, my heart racing, my nerves raw and twitching, I looked away from his eyes so that my fear wouldn’t be amplified by his cold stare. Through trying to explain our idea, I couldn’t help but imagine myself getting fired, that he wouldn’t like the idea, telling me how useless and pathetic I was and having to pack my things and be out of a job. But after my tentative pitch to him, he didn’t say a word, thinking over everything I had said, for what felt like a long time, and concluded our conversation by simply nodding and walking off, without providing any feedback. I assumed that was the best response I was going to get, so I left it at that.
By the end of the week, while we were giving our presentation, Harold sat at the back of the room, to see the outcome for himself, even though he didn’t have to. I could feel my anxiety rising to the surface again, as he imposed himself with his presence, creating tension between us and our clients; he was the elephant that couldn’t be removed. What made the situation worse was that our clients could also feel the tension, which probably had an impact on their decision before we even finished our presentation. Again, I began to envisage myself getting fired, as I was convinced that our clients weren’t going to be interested in collaborating with Harold on any project; and it caused me to trip over my own words, occasionally losing track of where I was and filling in those spaces with “um’s” and “ah’s”. And just when I believed my spiel couldn’t get any worse, Harold interrupted me, asking, “So what are you saying?”, which stopped me stone-cold because either he wanted to embarrass me and have an excuse to fire me by asking a question that suggested that I hadn’t been clear up until that point or that he knew that I was stumbling and thought that correctly answering his condescending question would help me get back on track. No matter his intentions, I froze, looking over our clients, wondering if my career was finished, wondering what I could do, should do, spinning through endless worries. But just as I was starting to feel ashamed, one of our clients answered Harold’s question, acknowledging that they had understood the project, our objectives and benefits for our potential partnership. It wasn’t me that was the problem; I knew that, but in that moment I felt embarrassed.
From my experiences in life, I’ve learnt that everyone has their fears, which really is natural and shouldn’t be frowned upon. But also, everyone has that one fear that stands out from the rest, that breeds anxiety and usually, stops people from reaching their dreams. And for me, that great fear is a fear of embarrassment; afraid of making a fool of myself or being perceived as a fool. I don’t like to be judged, especially for something I did wrong; just the thought of a crowd laughing at me for making a mistake causes me to fluster. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at coping with my great fear, learning to let go in social situations, laugh at myself from time to time and come to terms with my imperfections, but I still wasn’t free.
After the meeting, the client that saved my skin, Yen, approached me and told me to take a deep breath. Yen and I had been friends for a few years now and could tell that Harold was interfering with my well-being. I asked him how he would deal with Harold if he was in my shoes and he told me that I didn’t necessarily have to deal with him or with anyone for that matter, but that I should work on myself and how I react to him or someone like him; that by taking small steps, by spending a bit of time with him each day, I’d eventually realize that he was harmless and that I was the cause of my anxiety. Yen’s advice did make sense to me, but I wasn’t comfortable with becoming Harold’s best friend. I politely nodded to Yen and invited him over for dinner.
As soon as our clients left, Harold pulled me aside and remarked on my speech, uttering that we were lucky to make the deal and how his question turned the presentation around because his question got the clients engaged. He continued on a long rant, giving me pointers to making a wonderful presentation, so he could feel as if he saved the day. It baffled me how clueless he was, yet how at the same time he was possessed of unshakeable confidence, making him the one in the position of power. Is that justice or is it one of life’s paradoxes? I couldn’t tell. All one could do was move on.
For the following months, our team worked on the project, spending long hours on it, at the office and at home. But surprisingly, Harold didn’t interfere. I thought that he might drop by our room from time to time, seeing as he originally had an interest in the project, but he hadn’t shown up. The lack of his presence, made me wonder why he wasn’t checking up on us for updates and I came to one of three conclusions; one, he trusted us; or two, he didn’t want to participate in any way, shape or form because he didn’t understand the logistics of the project; or three, he was distancing himself from us, hoping that we’d make a hash of the project, which’d give him a reason to fire us. The first conclusion I found hard to believe. Number two, could be a possibility; maybe, behind his facade, he actually knew how valuable or invaluable he was. But the final conclusion was just as plausible as the second. I knew I shouldn’t have assumed that he wanted to fire us; it wasn’t fair. And yet, I couldn’t help but believe that he was out to get me in some way. Was it just my paranoia? Was I consumed by my own anxieties? My greatest fear? Or was it actually because of him? I didn’t know. Even when he wasn’t around, he was a thorn digging into my skull.
About two weeks before the deadline, Kacie dropped by our room and asked for an update on the project. We gave her a quick rundown, explaining clearly where we were at. She praised our progress, but then, hit us with something unexpected, informing us that Harold wanted our team to present the project to all of our customers at a live event, explaining that we were, as quoted by Harold himself, “the best for the job,” even though he was characteristically supercilious. Our customer base was well in the hundreds of thousands and we would have easily filled up the event, held at a theatre in the city, on a grand stage, with surround sound; there was no escaping any potential mockery. This probably explained why Harold hadn’t been coming by our room; he understood that if he presented the project, he’d be humiliated and so, he didn’t hang around us to learn what he needed to learn for the presentation and instead, callously decided, behind our backs, to make us present the project ourselves. Kacie apologized to us, even though she didn’t do anything wrong, and left, with her head down, upset that she was the one forced to break the news. We all looked to each other, uncertain to what we should do, as the dilemma sunk into our minds. Dwelling on the problem wasn’t going to solve it; we had to work together. I spoke up, proposing to the team that we should break up the presentation and present each of our specialties. The others agreed and we got to work.
We worked for many hours, finishing the project and preparing the presentation, never giving up, and without complaint. However, during the two weeks, one of our team members, Mal, had a quick chat with me about searching for other jobs. Mal had begun searching for work ever since Harold became CEO, secretly applying for interviews to see what his options were. Our conversation made me think I should be doing the same, but I didn’t know how to. Was I simply giving myself an excuse? Or was it something else? Mal couldn’t answer for me and just told me to think about it.
The night before the presentation, I couldn’t sleep. I kept tossing and turning, getting out of bed, checking my phone, going over my portion of the presentation, trying to go to sleep, getting out of bed again, stuck in what felt to me to be this eternal loop. My stress made me think about all of the potential problems that could unfold, all of the terrible ways in which the day could end. But I couldn’t back out. Not now. I had to endure the night.
We all arrived early to check up on each other, making sure that each of us was ready or at the very least feeling content about stepping out and giving their portion of the presentation. All of us were still unsettled, however, we were all committed to getting through the situation and didn’t hesitate with going forward.
To prepare, we walked onto stage to check that the projector was working and make sure that everything was in place, whilst feeling the atmosphere of the theatre. The enormous challenge ahead of us started to sink into our minds as time crept towards the inevitable. We came together for encouragement, letting each other know that we had their backs. It was inspiring to be in such a nerve-wracking situation and know that if one of us began to fumble, the others would pick that person up; the difficulties of the past few months had really created a cohesive team.
As the crowd began to flock in, I started to sweat excessively, my heart was pounding, nerves were sparking, my neck began to tighten, head started to spin, worries loomed larger and larger, as I began to focus on the difficulties ahead. It’s never good to have expectations, especially when you’re expecting the worst, but it’s hard not to fret over what can go wrong. Again, my mind began to think over the consequences of making a mistake and how Harold would react. I expressed my concerns with the rest of the team; I thought it was appropriate that they should know where my head was at. But they weren’t as stressed as I was. If the presentation didn’t go to plan and they were fired as a consequence for that, then they were optimistic that they could find work elsewhere. I was not as confident in myself. My fear of embarrassment wouldn’t allow me to be, and my uncertainty escalated my panic. I tried not to let the others see how I felt.
We walked on stage to an applause which was at least welcoming and made me feel at ease for a moment. Mal introduced the presentation and got us off to a great start, clearly defining the objectives of our project and the direction in which we planned on going. The other members of our team followed, going over the plan in detail, which helped me take my mind off of Harold and potentially losing my job and allowed me to see the benefits of the project and the real reason for why we created the project in the first place. For the first time during this whole predicament, I was able to step outside of my problems and focus solely on our customers and how we were helping them. When it was my turn, I was free to smile and approached the center of the stage with confidence. During my entire speech, I kept my concentration on everyone watching, looking over all their faces, flowing forward and beating my fear effortlessly because my focus was on serving the people that cared for us, not on my troubles. I was seeing past myself; and I concluded my speech, without any trouble and left with euphoria, having accomplished more than I had anticipated.
As I came home, it became clear to me, that what makes our greatest fears feel so catastrophic is that we treat them as the end, believing that the insufferable experience is all that is left for us. Yet, we know that this isn’t so. Our lives don’t hinge on one experience; our lives are based on all of our experiences, all of our precious moments that come together, assembling life. Once we understand this, we learn that life only moves forward, lacking a start and a finish.
The following day, I arrived at work and found Harold giving a speech to the rest of my colleagues on our floor. He was expressing how he was the one who came up with the idea for the project and how he wished he’d given the presentation, but couldn’t because he was sick, even though he had planned for our team to present the project two weeks prior to the presentation. During Harold’s intolerable spiel about how wonderful he was, I spotted Mal in the crowd, as he looked back at me, communicating with his eyes how frustrated Harold was making him feel. And that’s when Mal did something that lifted my spirits; he walked to his desk in the middle of Harold’s speech and started to pack his belongings, sticking it to Harold in the best way possible. But Harold ignored Mal and simply continued talking about himself, while the rest of us stood around obediently listening to Harold’s arrogance. After the presentation and seeing Mal walk off, I did recognize in myself this new found confidence, that I didn’t realize I had. I used to believe that confidence was elusive and esoteric, but now I’m starting to see that this is not true. Anyone can be confident. Confidence just comes out of a commitment to making clear decisions. All my beliefs did was prevent me from making the decisions that I should have made, that I regret not making. Within that moment, looking back and forth between Harold’s ego and Mal’s credence, I did something that I never would have done if I hadn’t learned from myself: I faced Harold, calling him out for dumping the presentation on our team by questioning him on the details of the project. Everyone on the floor was stunned, turning to me with a chilling silence. For a split second, I wondered what I was doing. But Harold raised his voice at me and I snapped back into it, repeating the question with clarity, so that he couldn’t make the excuse that he didn’t hear me a second time, stalling and giving himself room to think of an escape. He was dumbfounded, laughing at me to hide his incompetence and then telling me that he didn’t need to answer the question. So I called him out again, asking if he wouldn’t answer because he didn’t know the correct answer to my question. He got defensive, explaining to me that he didn’t have to answer because he was the CEO and that I was just an employee. But even though he was in a higher position of power, everyone could finally see how fragile he was, as his emotions began to overwhelm him. No matter what he said next, I had made my point. However, I did want to ask Harold one last question. I asked him, “how could a business that’s as big as ours run without its employees?” Harold didn’t know how to respond, standing in his place, stupefied, looking like an imbecile. He started to gaze around the room at his employees as each one of them convinced themselves that they needed to be working elsewhere, that life was too short to spend time doing something that they weren’t passionate about because of an inept boss. After a moment, I followed Mal, walking to my desk and packing my belongings. And slowly, one by one, every employee also followed, as Harold attempted to stop them, even physically grabbing some of my colleagues and trying to force them to stay. But none of us were changing our minds and quickly, Harold’s concern turned to rage, erupting like an angry child who had been told they weren’t getting their birthday present. Some of us were afraid, quickly leaving the office, while others felt ashamed for him, witnessing his true personality under the veil of his arrogance. And gradually, we all departed the office, leaving Harold and his ego behind us.
The majority of us from the office kept in touch; some of us even started small businesses together; passion projects that had been long in the waiting. Mal quickly found a job and hired me on contract, with the intent to continue hiring me unless I decided that I didn’t want to go on with the work. I was very grateful to Mal. I had been struggling to find a steady job, but thanks to him, I had found a new sense of freedom doing freelance and contract work. I was occasionally able to work from home, on my own time and have a partial say on what projects I wanted to do. And Harold, I don’t know what happened to him. He could have changed, he might not have changed, but either way, I hope he found his place. This phase of my life helped me to realize that doing the right thing is always the right thing, even if it’s not obvious upon first glance; and that recognizing that you’ve done good and feeling good for the good that you’ve done is truly its own reward.
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And finally, thank you so much for taking the time to read my short story. I feel so grateful to get to do what I do and it’s thanks to you for taking an interest in the content I create. So again, thank you.
Keep growing. Keep creating.