Wronged: A Story

15 Feb 2018. Bob Kaplan

From behind his massive mahogany desk, polished to such a sparkling gleam it almost hurt my eyes, Sam Califon sat high in his black upholstered desk chair. A big man, perhaps no longer young, but evidently trim.

I'd made the trip to his office one blustery day in March only after we'd talked by phone not once, which is typical, but three times. Only then did he decide to go ahead. I didn't enjoy being put through the ringer but I had to admire his diligence and tough-mindedness. 

After a few pleasantries I asked him how he had landed in the big job.

"I came out of nowhere. Went to a no-name college no one has heard of and decided to shoot high. So I applied to Stellar Inc. Stellar recruits the cream of the crop. For some unknown reason they hired me. I had zip chance to make the first cut, much less climb the ladder. At least that's what the other guys in my class—which included a few women—seemed to think. Most of them never missed a chance to drop the name of their fancy college or business school."

He leaned forward, his voice a deep baritone that filled the room. I said to myself, better watch it or you'll end up on the wrong end of an uneven playing field.

"It was up or out," he continued, "and I had so much ground to make up. The others ran circles around me, they were so sharp analytically, so articulate. I worked 80-90 hours a week, nearly killed myself. A year into it, the other guys were getting promoted. I was scared shitless I wouldn't make it."

"My supervisor basically saved my life. He helped me learn the ropes. And he saw potential in me, rough-cut though it was. Finally I got that first promotion."

As he went on, I broke in, to keep my lips from sealing shut: "In your busy life, is there ever time for reflection?" I suppose I was testing him.

"Not my cup of tea," he said authoritatively, not answering my stated question but responding to what I was getting at indirectly. "No way, what with the big job and the family."

With that he pushed his chair back and opened his top drawer. Out came a switchblade. The black metal handle was worn; it had seen a lot of use. He opened it and, looking down, scraped offending dirt from under his fingernails.

First dumbstruck, then tickled, I said, "Haven't seen one of those for ages." As kids, my friends and I carried around good-sized pocket knives. We skinned branches, played mumblety-peg.

As if reading my mind, he explained, "It's grease. I do my own work on the 50-year-old pick-up truck I drive to work. A Ford F-150. It was a wreck when I bought it. I did the bodywork myself, I rebuilt the engine. It's like new, pristine."

Using that as a segue, a bit forced I admit, I brought the subject back to the reason for our meeting. "Do you work on yourself?"

He didn't miss a beat. "I'm always looking to improve. Anytime I get a new assignment, I work like crazy to get up to speed. And I'm a fanatic about keeping up with the industry," he said proudly. That's semi-academic, arms-length, impersonal stuff, I noted, not really working on himself.

Just then the photograph on the wall behind him caught my eye. "Is that you?," I asked, pointing. Stupid question. "Yeah, I played for a very good Michigan State team that won the Big Ten title my senior year," he said, and jumped up and stood next to it. For the first time he smiled, revealing crooked teeth. The ones on either side of his front teeth were recessed.

"What position?"

"Linebacker. I was temperamentally suited to it. Any running back who got past our lineman had his head ripped off." That raw aggressiveness didn't bother me. I rather admired him for it but didn't let him know that.

"Okay, so what's your style of leading?"

"I wear the black hat."

"Oh, what does that look like?"

"It looks like"—he was mocking me—"the Darth Vader costume I wore at Halloween. My brother calls me 'Sam, the cosmic ass-kicker,'" he added, clearly pleased with himself. "Seriously, come to my next meeting and see for yourself."

*        *        *        *

That meeting wasn't pleasant. Sam's medical devices company had just issued a recall on a new type of replacement hip that leaked causing metal poisoning. Arrayed around  Sam's fortress-like desk with drawn looks on their faces were the general manager for that business, the head of R&D for the company, and a couple of his staffers. The sitting area with its couch and comfortable chairs sat idle. No pleasantries exchanged, no one smiled, least of all Sam. I thought to myself, he's king-like, more feared than loved.

The GM, a fellow named Charlie, began to hand out a deck and Sam immediately interrupted,  "What's the point? You sent this out as a pre-read. Everyone read it, right?" Whether they had or hadn't, people nodded. "So what have you found, what do you recommend?" The GM turned to one of the staffers, a young woman, who was so nervous her hands shook. Sam heard her out and, softening his tone just a bit, said, "Thank you, Lisa," and turned to the R&D head. "This analysis is full of holes that even a non-technical guy like me can see. It's not ready for showtime and you know it." He pounded his desk. People jumped. "Get back to me by Monday."

"But, Sam," someone protested weakly, "it's Friday." But Sam had already risen from his chair and with a wave of his arm dismissed them.

Just then a call came in. I saw my chance and ran down the hall after the GM. "Can I ask you something?," I said, a bit out of breath. He nodded and invited me into his office.

"Is he always this way?" I asked, wondering whether it had been an act for my benefit.

"No, that's him. It's his this-isn't-good-enough approach‎. He gets angry but it blows over quickly. Those of us who've worked with him for years are used to it. If you can't take it, you leave. Plenty of people have."

"Then what's the attraction?"

"Being part of a winning team. Having his confidence. He'd never tell you, though—you judge by his actions. And he's a decent guy. Tough but fair. He probably went into that meeting knowing which way he wanted to go. He's uneasy otherwise. Calls himself a control freak." It crossed my mind as I walked back to his office, this is something of a kingly guy more feared than loved.

Sam and I met for dinner that night. "Listen," he said, "I'm not the complete asshole you must think I am. Not that I give a rat's ass," he said, taking a cavalier attitude.

"Prove it," I said, responding in kind. He didn't seem to mind. Probably welcomed it.

He thought for a minute. "Okay, our youngest, Brian, who's fourteen, last night he and I watched Monday Night Football together. It was the Steelers, our home team, against the Patriots. During a commercial Brian muted the TV: "Dad, call my cell phone."

"What the heck for? I'm sitting right here," I said.

"He wasn't discouraged by my gruffness. 'Just do it, okay?'

"I shrugged my shoulders and complied. Brian's iPhone rang with the low, ominous opening notes of that famous symphony. Beethoven's fifth, I think. You know, Dunt-duh-duh-dun, dunt-duh-duh-dun. I punched him on the shoulder, lightly. I never tell him I approve of his feistiness with me but he can tell."

"People at work have any idea you're like this at home?"

"Hell no. My HR head says talking about my kids would soften my image. No way, I told her. I draw a hard line between work and family."

As he paid the check he surprised me and maybe himself by announcing, "Listen, I want you to meet my wife, Margaret. She knows me better than anyone."

*        *        *        *

When Sam and Margaret fell in love she worked as an executive assistant in another department and he was already an upper-level manager. He always treated her with respect, but in the beginning she couldn't help being in awe of him, and maybe a little intimidated. Gradually that wore off as she gained self-confidence and adjusted to his gruff exterior and bullheadedness.

A few days later, I got a call from him suggesting the three of us meet for dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. I counteroffered. A conference room at my hotel was better for talking. He was okay with that.

Margaret arrived first; he'd emailed to say he'd be 15 minutes late. She shook my hand warmly and firmly, and we sat down on opposite sides of the table.

"What do you make of this?," I asked

"It's unlike him. Maybe working with you will do some good."

"Any concerns?"

"No, I trust you."

"You just met me."

"How long have you worked with people here?" she asked rhetorically. It had been several years. She nodded knowingly.

Just then Sam walked in. After they gave me a rundown on their children Margaret plunged in: "Want to know what Sam's like? To the kids he's Father. He plays hardball with them when he feels it's needed. I don't always see the need."

She related a recent incident: One evening that week, Lisa, their second-born, a junior in high school, self-motivated, naturally high-achieving yet emotional in the best of times, burst into the kitchen, knocking the swinging door into the wall. Margaret motioned to the phone, indicating she was on a call. Lisa paced the floor while she waited. The moment Margaret put the phone back on the hook, Lisa rushed up to her. "Mom," she fairly shouted, "Dad is on my case about my fall-term grades!" After hearing her out, Margaret, who had long ago taken on the role of interpreting Sam for their kids, attempted to reassure her: "Your father is very proud of you."

"You'd never know it!," Lisa shot back, and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Later that evening, when Margaret and Sam had a moment to themselves, she asked him, "What was that all about?" as if she didn't know full well.

"No excuse for that grade, that B. She could have tried harder." He was implacable.

"That's the old story," Margaret chided. "What's the real reason?"

He got quiet and looked away. "That blotch on her record, it got it me."

She took his hand and asked, "Sam, is that her problem or yours?"

Normally quick with a come-back, he looked away and was quiet. Finally, she prompted him, "Sam?"

"Mine," he admitted, ungrudgingly.

She squeezed his hand. It wasn't like him to acknowledge a chink in his armor.

With that, they had to leave.

*      *      *      *

Sam Califonte is part of a special breed that excels at taking charge of a failing organization and putting it right. It takes an emergency-room's brutal clarity to do triage on strategy, structure and, most of all, the people affected and then to perform radical surgery on what's left. From the raw intensity written on their faces, their brusque manner and the tough actions they don't hesitate to take, albeit for the greater good, this breed can be easily seen as heartless and unfeeling. That was Sam's image, certainly for people viewing him from any distance. That it pained him to terminate employees, especially in large numbers, he kept to himself.

In our second or third meeting he raised an issue he had just started to work on. "It's been brought to my attention that I don't praise people. Criticize, sure, I'm a champ at that. The only way I know to build morale is drive people to high accomplishment. People feel good because they've done good, not because they're told they're good."

"Do you even believe in praise?"

"Not really. I worry people will get complacent. Me personally: I can do without it."

 "You haven't said much about your childhood."

"Well, all you need to know is that my father was hard on me."

"Is that so? Have you ever made the connection?"

"Not really."

"Interesting. Tell me a story, would you?"

"Must I?" He grimaced. "Okay, here's one that sticks in my mind."

"I grew up in Minnesota in a working-class family. My father, a plumber very good at his craft, was a man of few words who turned sullen when he drank. There he would sit, slumped in his Barcalounger watching TV with a Budweiser in his hand. He was like a thinly disguised predator, poised, when he wasn't dozing off, to strike. At those times, we made ourselves scarce, my mother included. I was his favorite target."

"Why was that, do you think?"

"I was the oldest and, let's say, boisterous. He'd say hell on wheels. After dinner I'd horse around with my younger sister and brother. Innocent stuff but in a small house the commotion bugged the shit out of him. Another thing: I'd be out playing sports with neighborhood kids and I'd come in late for dinner. Once in a while, sitting next to me at the table, he'd hit my knuckles with his fork, not the prongs."

"But there was this one time, after dinner, I was in my bedroom, which I shared with my younger brother, minding my own business, and my father shouted from the top of his lungs, 'Sammy, get your ass down here.' I knew what it was. That afternoon my mother was nagging me to watch my siblings. I was standing at the door with my hand on the storm door handle, itching to go play pick-up football with my friends. I pleaded with her to let me go, and when she wouldn't relent I just left."

"When I walked into the den I could see empty beer bottles on the side table. My father bellowed at me like a demented bull: 'You disobeyed your mother.' I tried to explain but he shut me down. At times like that I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands and pretended I wasn't there.

"My teeth were clenched and I guess he misread that for smiling because he said, 'Wipe that smirk off your face or I'll do it for you!' I changed my expression and waited for him to finish. Finally he picked up the newspaper, a signal he was done."

"How hard on you was that kind of thing?"

"The worst of it was in the moment, being treated like shit. But otherwise I didn't think about itBut don't get me wrong. I'm actually grateful to my father. Know the song, A Boy Named Sue? The father gave his son a girl's name to toughen him up. In a real sense my dad made me the success I am today."

"That's one way to look at it."

"Yeah, my sister, who's a great one for blaming other people for her problems, makes way more of our upbringing than I do. I just felt unreasonably treated. 'Sis, you're a victimologist," I tell her.

"What does Margaret think?"

"Don't know, we've never had the conversation. Let's ask her. Phone call okay?"

The call took place a couple of weeks later. Sam and Margaret were on speakerphone.

"No, I don't see it that way at all." Margaret said, speaking of Sam's view of his father's impact. "It's like putting lipstick on a pig, as you like to say. But God knows, I can see why you'd just want to move on. The way he treated you when he drank! Painful even to think about it." She got quiet, overcome with emotion.

Gathering herself, she bravely went on. "Here's an idea you won't like—go to AA for a while, see what you can learn."

"What the f---?" He caught himself. Margaret did not want him to swear in front of the children or her.

"Take it easy, Sam," she said. "You like to learn, right?" He went quiet, exercising restraint. "Let me think about it."

*      *      *      * 

After Sam had to run to a meeting Margaret stayed on for a minute longer, telling me how hard it could be to influence him. "Sometimes there's a wall, a concrete barrier. It's tough; it can take tears, yelling, but when everyone has calmed down we can work with one another. I can see where he's coming from, it's harder for him to see where I'm coming from. With him it's not easy but it's worth it."

Eventually, after several such conversations, Sam relented about AA. He chose a chapter in a neighborhood where he didn't think he'd run into people from work. Attending was a

monumental struggle from the start. He had imagined he could be a fly on the wall and just listen and hopefully learn, but right away he had to introduce himself and say why he was there.

"I told them my wife wanted me to attend because my father drank a lot," he reported. "That satisfied them for the moment but in the next meeting they put me on the hot seat. They wanted me to admit my father was an alcoholic. I couldn't."


"I suppose I didn't want to categorize him, pigeonhole him."

"Stigmatize him?"


A month later AA came up again and Sam reported, "One old hand got through to me by asking whether I drank. I said no, never. 'Ah, a teetotaler, par for the course, my friend. If you're not careful, you'll set up your kids to be alcoholics.'"

"So the idea of going to AA was a good one?" I asked, testing whether he gave his wife credit.

"Definitely. Margaret was right. The big aha for me was this: our father's heavy drinking was the norm in our family but that didn't make it normal."

"Big distinction. Are you still attending?"

"For the time being. I've decided to at least take the first couple of steps in their twelve-step method. You know, to confess my sins, so to speak, and then to apologize to the people I've hurt, I've wronged."

"Gotten anywhere with that?" I asked with a touch of false innocence.

"Starting to. I'm seeing my father's thumbprint on me, one of them anyway—he wasn't all bad."

"What's the thumbprint, may I ask?" continuing to feign innocence and not feeling entirely good about it.

"Being prone to feeling shitty about myself." His tone had turned a bit milder, his demeanor a tad less combative. "Get this, last weekend I had coffee with our firstborn, Kathleen. She wanted to pick my brain on how to manage people; she's been promoted to team leader. I told her, in all honesty, 'Do what I say, not what I do.' She didn't buy that. 'Nothing wrong with the way you lead, Dad.' 'Oh, yeah, how do I lead?,' I challenged her, wishing I hadn't come on so strong. 'Obvious, Dad,' she said, unfazed. 'By attacking what's wrong and putting it right. You're really energized by that, aren't you?' I was stunned."

"The apple doesn't fall from the tree?" I offered. He looked pleased. "Building on what Kathleen said, can we say that you've made a career of whipping organizations into shape?"


"Is it too big a leap, then, to say that, all along, you've really been trying to whip yourself into shape?"

"Ouch! I guess that is where a lot of my stamp-out-what's-wrong energy comes from. It certainly propelled me to a high level, but it's also slammed me into a wall. I just learned I'm not being considered for a top job because they've pegged me as a crisis type. They question my breadth—can I lead when times are good?"

"Boxed yourself in, in more ways than one?" I offered, a bit disingenuously.

"It turned out that way."

We took a break. Sam took a walk by himself, to clear his head, he said.

Upon his return he made an announcement: "I've created a larger-than-life image which isn't healthy for me or anybody else. I guess I needed it when I was building myself up from nothing but I've let the inflated image, the caricature, get out of control."

"Does that image have anything to do with the black hat?" A leading question.

"Maybe. Probably. To me it's a balloon I want to let some air out of."

"What would that mean, practically speaking?"

His gaze pointed above me, he thought for a minute. "Build other people up. When I value people highly, tell them. Force myself to do that." This is the sort of thing Charlie, the GM, meant, it came to me, when he said Sam would be great if he could come out from behind that wall.

*      *      *      *

A few weeks later we were back in Sam's office. He'd motioned me to the sitting area.

"So I tried to give people positive feedback." He grimaced. "But it's almost impossible for me to do it, it's agonizing. I can't spit the words out."

"It's like you're blocked." He didn't argue so I went on. "Do you know that we treat other people the way we treat ourselves?"

"That fits. I'm my own worst critic. But I think I found a way around the mental block, as you'd call it. I hit on the idea of handwritten notes."

"The art of the possible—why not."

We took a bio break and, still standing, he came out with this: "Of all the damned things, I just had this flashback. Early on when I was working ridiculously long hours my mother said, 'Sam, you're afraid you won't shape up, aren't you?' I couldn't admit it at the time, but there it was. She was right. My mother 'got' me." He seemed touched by the memory.

He took a moment to jot down a note to himself and, reengaging, with eyes bright, said: "Get this, I think my whole life has been a quest for salvation."

"A deep and sweeping thought if there ever was one." He nodded ever so slightly.

Sam had had no explicit aim other than to succeed in business, which he had done admirably. But somewhere underneath, instinctual, almost hormonal, throbbed a persistent urge to somehow save himself.

I asked him what he meant by salvation. He looked down for a moment and then, with a grieved expression, said: "I guess it's being less prone to feeling like a piece of crap."


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