I was in a board meeting in the Operation Friendship drop in centre. I was positioned so I could see out of the windows into the courtyard. During the meeting I noticed Louie walking slowly toward the rooming house door. Louie was a short, slender man, about 65 years of age. I turned my attention back to the meeting but it was soon again diverted when I heard a hoarse voice shouting profanity.
Louie had stopped and turned and he was angry, yelling at someone that was out of my line of sight. I stood up as Louie reached into his pocket and pulled out a blade. I said nothing to my colleagues as I headed toward the door. I wasn’t really thinking to be honest.
I knew Louie. I knew he carried a knife; most of our clients did. But it was not like him to pull it out. A knife in his pocket was the confidence he needed to travel the streets alone. Louie was a peaceful man, a former chief from Saskatchewan or so he mentioned one night in passing while describing how his brother was murdered by three teenagers having fun with the drunk Indian.
Despite the sadness in his life, odds were when Louie's face moved, it formed a smile. I guess I didn’t really know this Louie, this knife-out-of-the-pocket Louie.
As I exited the drop-in centre, I saw Bruno – and his size and demeanour would match your image of a man facing another man brandishing a knife named Bruno. He was a hulk of a man, nearly my height and broad. I didn’t know him really, but heard he was ornery more often than just about anything else he ever was.
By now both men were shouting and swearing, and each time Bruno took a step toward Louie, Louie took a step toward him. There was still ten yards between them when I arrived, in the middle. I put my hand up to Louie and said, “Please wait.” Then I turned to Bruno and told him to walk away before the police showed up and I had to explain everything.
Bruno's hands had formed fists and he took another step forward. My heart was pounding and my brain was sending "flight messages" to my legs, but I stayed put. "Bruno, please leave it be. I don't want you to end up in jail."
Bruno looked past me to Louie and mumbled something and then turned and left.
When I turned around Louie was still pointing the knife, except now it was just pointed at me. From where I was standing I noticed a police cruiser turn onto our street about a half block away, its mars lights spinning, but no siren.
I turned back to Louie and said, “Louie!” as if saying his name and nothing more would resolve everything. But at the same time I said that, I took his arm gently with one hand, and slipped the knife into my other hand, pocketed it, and turned toward the policeman who was emerging from the squad car.
We had met before. We exchanged greetings and then he asked if there was a “problem.” He mentioned they had a complaint call. He didn't offer this as information as much as present it as evidence.
I smiled and told him that two of my guys had gotten into a shouting match that might have turned into something worse but it didn’t. I told him I spoke with both men and everything was fine now.
The officer asked who the other man was.
I told him. “Bruno.”
He almost laughed. “Bruno and him? That’s crazy.”
I smiled and something like “no kidding.”
The officer jotted down Louie’s information, and then mine and went on their way.
The board meeting never did resume. I said my goodbyes and as I was headed toward my car, I heard Louie calling me.
I walked to him and told him that was a close call.
“No bleeping kidding,” he said. He walked closer and said, “Sorry about what happened.”
(He actually didn’t say bleeping, you know. That’s me trying to live up to my promise to myself to use profanity less often. I am not sure successful I will be.)
Anyway, I asked him what was he thinking, getting tangled up with Bruno and pulling a knife.
Louie told me he wasn’t really thinking like he should but that he was just bluffing and then, after giving me a big smile, he asked if he could get his knife back.
From then on, Louie and I were finger-snap close. We stopped to talk when we saw each other. He helped me resolve some tenant issues that I wasn’t managing well. It’s not like “he owed me” or anything. It was more like we connected, albeit because of unfortunate circumstance.
It was quite some time before I realized what I had done, rushing to place myself between them to discover an instant later that I had just done what I done, if you understand. I mean I didn't really tell the whole story to the police. I could easily have been accused of favoring Louie over Bruno. I imagined this was not something I would write up as best practice leadership.
Today, thinking back to that time, I feel good about the decisions I made. I am not saying mine was the only right decision that could have been made, but I am good with what I decided and what I did. For me, it was a test of my leadership as including action in the face of the unknown.
Here’s a question.
What do you think you would have done? (You can leave your comments below)
Might make for some interesting coffee-time conversation with a colleague or cause a bit of self-reflection.
Oh, by the way. Louie didn’t get his knife back and he never asked for it again.