As the sun kissed the horizon, the first of my clansman rode before the royal box; backs arrow-straight, heads held high and tilted to the right, crimson and sapphire sashes interwoven with the horses’ bridles,
In: Short Story, Potential, Leadership

A short farce (with a point).

Thinking back, Jack couldn’t remember exactly when he found the old, tattered manuscript with its pages brittle like crisp, fallen oak leaves, the dark leather cover peeling from too many summers in the attic. He remembered gently flipping the pages in the dim, smoky light, barely able to make out the bold, precise penmanship. “Huh?” he thought. “I don’t remember seeing this before.”

He tucked the book under his arm and spider-walked down the folding stairs carrying the box of winter clothes he had been sent to fetch—he doubted the kids would embrace last year’s fashions, but orders were orders. Jack slid the book on the back of the nightstand and headed toward the pandemonium in the family room.

About a week later, after the kids’ winter break was over, Jack lay down early, wearily flicked on the nightlight, picked up the oversize volume, and read. It took him a while to sort out the olde Englishe lettering, with its “f” for “s,” “these,” “thines,” and “thous.” It became clear that the big book was written as a journal, an account of a man’s personal journey long, long ago…

I, Theorick of Flagling by the lake, doth attest that these events described by my hand are of a truth unbreakable. Set to seal this 13th day of our Lord, May, nine-hundred-thirty six.

Having returned home after six years of adventure, I thought it prudent to record, for the sake of my sons and daughters and their sons and daughters, the strange events that hath transpired to bring our family to its current lamentable state.

Ours was never a wealthy family, but we continued to live on and improve our ancestral lands, earned by a distant forebear through great acts for a long-forgotten monarch. Through the ebb and flow of life we hath never been hungry enough to steal or wealthy enough to forget God. Bound by our forefathers’ creed: no man shalt ever doubt the word or the will to work of a son of Theorick, we had the respect of our neighbors. Yet we were a simple folk without the slightest blush of blue, royal blood in our hearty veins.

When the lords and their ladies would come to our village, the clan of Theorick would always be invited to Feast but never to sit at the head table. Many times our larders and meadows would be called upon to yield rich fare for the revelers, for if we gavest our word, we delivered.

“Jack. Ja-ack!” called Mona. “Can you come here and help me put this vase up?”

“Sure, Hon,” replied Jack. “I’ll be there in a second.” After fourteen years, Jack still felt lucky to be married to Mona. She was a dark beauty with flashing brown eyes that twinkled and winked into subtle, comfortable lines when she laughed—which was often. Her hourglass figure had mellowed a little with age, but she could still stop a clock. Way better, to Jack’s mind, to embrace age’s gentle, constant changes than to attempt to artificially manage the effects of time. He laid a purple chord on the first page to mark his spot, closed the book, and padded into the kitchen.

‘Tired?” asked Jack.

“Exhausted,” replied Mona. “All the activities during the kids’ break are great, but it gets a little harder to keep up each year. How are you? Are you holding up okay?”

“Oh, yes and no, I guess. Still hurts—a lot sometimes, but I suppose that’s life.”

“Life for some people, it seems,” sighed Mona.

Jack would be 38 in six weeks. He met Mona in college. Cupid smote Jack at close range the minute he spotted Mona in the quadrangle. Normally tongue-tied around anyone in a dress, Jack swallowed hard and said hello. Mona politely accepted Jack’s invitation for coffee as a charitable act. He was so obviously nervous that she couldn’t say no. Jack was not overly handsome, yet he was good-looking in a healthy, mid-western way. It was his wry sense of humor, positive personality, and straight-from-the-farm honesty that finally won Mona’s heart.

“Want me to help with the rest of the dishes?” asked Jack.

“No, I’m relaxing while piddling around, said Mona. “You go put your feet up.”

Jack kissed his wife on the forehead and walked back to their room. He thought about the creed he had read in the journal. “Sounds like Dad,” he mused. “Build character, prepare, work hard, and when opportunities arise, you’ll be ready and you’ll be successful.” A long, involuntary sigh escaped. “Maybe that really was true in Dad’s day,” he thought. “It doesn’t feel true today.”

Jack plopped down on the bed, picked up the leather journal and began to read. What transpired in the writings were stories of knights-in-armor, chivalry, battles, challenges, and campaigns. A common thread wound its way through the narrative. The family of Theorick was stout, loyal, and eager to serve king and country. Oddly, their chances to really contribute to their potential were few and far between.

Today I represented our clan at the preparations for war. Even though just six short weeks ago my servants and I saved the King’s troops from grievous harm—we discovered and defended a surprise action on the rearguard at cost of 30 men and much blood—I still sit at the outer edge of the second circle.

I have sworn my allegiance to the King and I will gladly giveth my life and fortune to defeat his enemies which become my enemies. Still, it is hard to bear some who sit at the head table giving counsel as if they earned the right in battle.

A pox on me if I do not speak the truth. Look at Thomas, Lord of Lancaster, leaning on the King’s arm and whispering in his ear. Through the blur of my sword, I saw Thomas’s colors safe on the hillside while we hacked our way out of the streambed. Of a truth, I know that position of birth does not make one valiant!

“Tell me about it, Theorick,” muttered Jack sleepily as he closed the book, replaced it on the nightstand, and rolled over to a troubled sleep. Jack had strange dreams that night. Though barely remembered in the morning, he did recall standing in a creek in his suit, slashing about with his laptop, while Mike Muggins called down orders from a giant, black, leather executive chair.

Mike Muggins, “Mikey” as he was un-affectionately and secretly known by those who worked for him, had been Jack’s boss for about a year. Jack had been with Tensidyne for over ten years when the CEO brought Mikey in to run the division. “Prepare and work hard,” said Jack’s Dad. So Jack put himself through UT Austin with student loans and pizza delivery tips. To Bill, Jack’s Dad, preparation meant education. “All successful people have a lifelong love of learning,” he would preach. “It doesn’t have to be formal education, just continuous education.” So Jack went on to earn his master's degree in finance, again at the state school. “I wonder if that three years was a waste of time,” thought Jack.

Mona handed Jack a man-sized mug of his requisite wake-up juice: very strong coffee with three sugars and a lot of cream. “Morning, Hon,” she purred. “Sleep okay?”

“Thanks. Not really,” Jack replied, taking the coffee. “My mind won’t shut down and let me rest.”

“I’m sorry. It’ll get better. Just give it some time. Are you going to start looking today?”

“I think I’m going to allow myself one more day to wallow in my pity. John and I are going to have lunch at the Logjammer. I might as well spend some of the severance.”

“Okay. I’m off to work. Remember the kids’ recital tonight at 7:00.”

Jack looked at his watch. He had a couple of hours to kill before getting ready to meet John so he warmed his coffee, grabbed the manuscript, and headed for his throne—the fat, oversized easy chair—to read. What followed were more tales of war and the exploits of Theorick and his band. Jack noticed a change begin to emerge in the writing. With each conquest, Theorick became more angry and bitter; the tone acerbic, almost sarcastic. Although successful in the field of battle, Theorick had made no headway in the eyes of the King or royal lords.

This day the mighty king hath chosen to honor the great families who hath pillaged their own wealth and sacrificed their own sons and servants to give him the victory he so craved.

It hath been ordained that we will parade by family in front of the king, queen, and royal court presenting our colors in exchange for their precious salute. This is to be followed by days of feasting in and around the so-called royal hall.

Nothing hath changed. The order of the procession is determined by birth. First, the knave prince, Earl, followed by the buffoon prince, Henry, then on to those whose bloodlines can be traced to royalty. Of a truth, some in the front are valiant and courageous, yay more than Theorick. There is lord Bentsley of Bravenwood, who stood back to back with me at the battle of Therenguard, slashing and heaving until we had constructed a barricade with the bodies of our enemies. But, of a truth, I have found men such as that to be few. Most primp, posture, speak great, swelling words, and disappear at the first smell of blood.

The colors of Theorick will not see the light of day until the sun casts long shadows from our flags and pennants. Because we gavest and bled more than most, this is not right. It is not the recognition I covet. I did not fight for that. My anger seethes like a pot of boiling cabbage because those who did not fight are given more thank just because of their rank.

Jack pushed his glasses on top of his head, leaned back, stared at the ceiling and muttered audibly, “Theorick and I must be related. Was it really just last Thursday?” he thought to himself.

Last Thursday started like any other Thursday; check e-mail, return phone calls, start to gather numbers for the Friday recap, same-old-same-old. It was the 9:30 phone call from Marge, CEO Dave Horvan’s administrative assistant, that started to turn the world upside down. “Mr. Jones,” began Marge. “Mr. Horvan would like to meet with you and Mr. Muggins in his office at 10:00. Can you clear your schedule for an hour or so?”

“Certainly,” Jack quickly replied. “Any idea what the meeting is about? Should I bring anything?”

“No. Mr. Horvan said the meeting is to discuss personnel issues.”

“That’s strange,” thought Jack. “I don’t remember Dave Horvan ever calling a meeting without making sure everyone was prepared. I wonder what’s up?”

At 9:55, Jack walked past Marge’s sentry outpost, opened the door and walked into the CEO’s ornately appointed corner office. The floor-to-ceiling shades were drawn, robbing the room of its usual sunny glare. Dave was seated behind his enormous, curved, cherry wood desk, three office chairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of the desk facing him. Mikey was already seated in the left chair, and Lucy Richardson, VP of Human Resources, was in the right. “I guess this chair’s for me,” Jack heard himself say.

“Yes, please sit down, Jack,” said Dave. “Jack, let’s get right to this. I’ve heard some bad things about you and want to get it cleared up.”

“What? What bad things?” stammered Jack. “Heard from whom?”

“Jack, before we get into that, I want Lucy to review your personnel file,” said Dave. “Lucy,” he nodded at her.

Lucy began leafing through Jack’s file, reading portions in a clipped, monotone voice:

“Graduated UT Austin, BS in Business; M.B.A., UT Austin; two years in the Accounting Department at Dell; hired in financial reporting at Tensidyne; become Assoc. VP of Finance for the Southwest region; consistently good to excellent performance reviews; considered for GM position, but passed over for outside hire; authored memo to CEO titled: “Changing the Tensidyne Culture from Political to Performance-Based”; Received written censure for not being a team player; no further issues…until today.”

“Jack,” said Dave, “you have been a fine Tensidyne employee for almost eleven years. I know you disagreed with my decision to hire Mike, but from my perspective, I just couldn’t ignore his credentials; Harvard M.B.A., six years with Merrill, a lot of high-profile clients.”

“We’ve been all through that, Dave,” interrupted Jack.

“I know and I thought we were on the same page. But, from the report I’m getting from Mike, you’ve been working in the background to subvert his authority and mine.”

“What in the world are you talking about?” gasped Jack. “I haven’t tried to subvert anyone.”

“Jack, did you or did you not have a discussion with Jimmy Lugridous from the Eastern Region about Tensidyne politics?”

“We had a couple of beers after the last conference and started talking about work just like everyone does. I don’t remember everything we talked about.”

“The way Jimmy remembers it, you are pretty sore about how we recognize and promote people around here. The words Mike reported were, I wrote them down: Tensidyne cares more about who you know and where you graduated than what you do on the job.

Mike chimed in, “Jack, you do remember saying that, don’t you?”

Jack swallowed hard, paused for a minute and reasoned that somebody’s got to tell the emperor he’s got no clothes. “Yeah, I said it. I said it because it’s true. Dave, Mike is your fair-haired boy and can do no wrong, but the truth is he contributes very little here. He takes credit for other people’s work, pits people against each other, and plays brilliant politics. He knows just how to tweak your buttons to get on your good side. Everybody but you knows he’s not passionate about his work here; that Tensidyne is a career stepping stone. Dave, I love my job. I love this company and the people I work with. I feel I have so many great ideas and so much more to offer, but no one is interested, least of all Mike.”

Jack noticed Mike glance at Dave as if to say, “See, I told you he would say that.” Dave leaned back in his chair, paused, made a steeple with his hands and began to pontificate. “Jack, you know that I believe everyone has a personal potential. You have also heard me talk about the pre-ordained order of things. Everyone has a perfect place where they can be successful. Some are meant to run companies or divisions, and some are meant to be foot soldiers. I don’t know how the recipe works; a dash of education, a pinch of hard work, a bit of good luck. But there is an intangible that it is not politically correct to discuss: genetics, breeding, background. These all combine to be a barometer for excellence—especially among the managerial class.”

“Dave, you’ve got to be kidding, right? Please tell me you are joking. Am I being punked?”

“I’m deadly serious, Jack. I have been around a long time, and if there is one factor that I can point to time after when I have made great people decisions, it is pedigree. That doesn’t mean one person’s lineage is better than another, just different; suited for different work. Because of Mike’s East Coast, Ivy League background, his pedigree spells l-e-a-d-e-r.”

“Where does that put me in your mind, Dave?” asked Jack.

“Jack, you are to be complimented because you are an overachiever. But, and this brings us to the purpose of this meeting, you have reached and probably exceeded your potential at Tensidyne. I want you to be happy. You can keep your job here, as long as there are no more critical remarks, that is, but I don’t see much of a future for you. On the other hand, Lucy has prepared a generous severance package in the event you think you could do better elsewhere.”

Jack snapped out of his reverie and glanced at his watch. 11:30; just enough time for a quick shower and the short drive to meet John for lunch.

After a second beer, Jack started to relax a little bit and began talking to his best friend. “I just can’t believe it. I have poured my whole life into that company. Do you know how many late nights I’ve put in—without a thank you, by the way? Do you know how many nights I’ve stayed awake staring into the dark, straining to come up with a new idea, a new solution, a new wrinkle that would make us better?

“Yeah, I know, Jack. Remember, I used to work there, too,” Responded John.

“Dave Horvan has no idea how I feel. Mikey could care less. Dave cares, but he is clueless. He can only see things through his little paradigm, which is from the dark ages. Pedigree! Pedigree? What kind of crap is that--knights-in-armor? Only a certain class of people are supposed to lead, or innovate, or manage—ridiculous! The rest of us are just supposed to sit on the sidelines with pom-poms and cheer the chosen class. John, once I heard that it didn’t take me two minutes to make my decision—not that I had any choice, Dave wields his power unapologetically. Suddenly I didn’t care how much I had personally invested…”

“I hear you, man. I saw it coming a long time ago. I didn’t want to dump it all on you because you were such a believer, but the first half-way decent offer from the search firm and I was outta there.”

Jack felt better after his two-hour lunch with John. There was a great big world out there, and John helped him feel his personal identity and sense of self-worth were not tied to an organization. “Tomorrow I’ll start shopping my resume’ to several headhunters,” he thought, “I’m still young. Everything will be okay. I wonder how things turned out for Theorick?”

He later read:

As the sun kissed the horizon, the first of my clansman rode before the royal box; backs arrow-straight, heads held high and tilted to the right, crimson and sapphire sashes interwoven with the horses’ bridles, golden plumes curved gracefully forward from gleaming, polished helmets, sharply pointed pennants adorned with all of our family colors flapping in the gentle breeze while being hoisted from every lance. By now the great king must have been tired from saluting all his relatives, his wife’s relatives, his mistresses’ relatives and several generations of their relatives, for at was all he could do to muster a backhanded flick of his wrist which caused his ruffled sleeves to flutter with each barely perceptible nod of his head.

It was all I could do to watch this charade. As my steed approached the box, I turned his head sharply and dug my heels into his flanks so the black would rear and paw the air. This got the attention of the monarch. “Theorick, are you unable to control your mount?” he said, causing the ladies to titter behind their silk scarves.

“Oh great king Michael,” I bellowed. “For these long years, we have honored ourselves by joining our cause to yours. We have asked for no quarter and given none. We plundered our own lands and storehouses to feed ourselves, our mounts, and our servants. We rejoice in the great victories we have wrought together, but, at the risk of causing great offense, the creed of my fathers calls me to speak. You honor yourself through your lineage, but you dishonor your countrymen by treating them like page boys. Is the blood of the clan of Theorick any less red than the blood of your kin? Is the sleep of my sons any less deep than that of your cousins and nephews? The rules of chivalry demand that valor, courage, bravery, sacrifice, and honor beget honor. You, oh king, are parsimonious with your praise and sparing with sharing responsibility; what you spend, you spend on your own…”

“Silence, ingrate!” shouted the king. “I honor you and your simple family by allowing you the privilege of brushing shoulders with your betters, taking rank with those of better birth, and you insult me? You do not have the pedigree to raise your voice to me or to mingle with royalty. Leave our presence now!”

And so it came to be after these twelve generations that we are taking exodus from our ancestral lands in search of a kingdom worthy of our crimson, sapphire, and gold.

Jack slammed the covers shut with more force than he intended with the old book. “Pedigree!” he spat through clenched teeth. “Even with all of our supposed sophistication, leadership training, management retreats, and thousands of business books, how easily we devolve into our baser, dark-aged selves.”

Suddenly Jack felt weightless and free. “Theorick, if you can do it, I can do it,” he thought to himself. Just then, Mona walked in the front door. “Jack,” she asked. “Why do you have that silly grin on your face?”

“True leadership - in any context, is to help another person reach his or her full potential.” - Me

March , 2006

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