Leading As A Servant


     These photographs should not really exist.  They are of a very cute little girl at Epcot.  Every photo has a story to tell.  These are of my daughter and I’m proud of the story behind these pictures.  You probably don’t know the story so I’ll tell it to you.  I know they say that every picture is worth a thousand words, but these pictures are different.  These pictures have 108,000 pictures behind them.  Give or take a few thousand.  I didn’t really count, but I averaged the numbers.  I was a photographer at Epcot for three years between 1999 and 2002.   I took about 150 pictures per day at Epcot, five days per week for three years.  If you figure I worked at least forty-eight weeks a year for those three years, it comes out to about 108,000 pictures. 

     I worked for a company that contracted at Disney called Sharp Shooter-Spectrum Imaging.  You could never meet a more zany and diverse group of people than the group that I ran around with during those three years.  We were a band of misfits.  Now we are scattered all over the earth, but for a few short years we huddled into a room that was actually a closet underneath Space Ship Earth.  There were over fifty of us in those three years who went in to work each day to chase Disney guests for a picture in front of Space Ship Earth, as they entered the gate.  In those days we intentionally approached guests for a photo because we had the opportunity to earn money for achieving high sales.  Now Disney employs the photographers at Epcot.  While they do provide an excellent service, and they do use top quality camera gear, I think they are missing that certain “need to survive” mentality that made us good…and somewhat crazy.  You see we did this because we had something to prove.  We needed to be motivated every day, and we earned our living off of constantly being told “no” to one simple question… “can I take your picture?”  We each quickly learned about the unwritten rules and expectations of the normalcy of being rejected.  Rejection was part of the job.  But everyone had to be comfortable with being told no, because it was the thirty to fifty times that we got that “yes” which brought us our daily pay.  We each had a stake in the game because we earned a group commission in addition to our individual sales commission.  It was this group interaction that made us accountable to the team, and made us have a vested interest in each other.  But it was the ability to earn an individual sales commission that made us push ourselves mentally on a daily basis.  We had to set individual goals for ourselves to achieve the standard of living that we were expecting this job to provide.  The job was never intended to be a high-paying job, but there were a few of us who did do pretty well.  Those folks had to endure challenging conditions.  Florida heat during the summer gets to about 110 degrees when you are standing on concrete.  Eight hours of that a day can really make an impact on you.  My knees are in pretty bad shape from getting up and down on the concrete a hundred times a day.  Being told “no” about a thousand times a day to the same question can also be kind of disheartening.  (We always tried to come up with new ways to try to get people to say yes to stopping for a photo.)  All of these things combined to make a group dynamic that will stay fresh in my mind forever.

The biggest reason why this time was important to me was because I was coming to the end of my time of running from God.  Running from God is never a good thing.  I wanted to be a leader.  I wanted people to like me.  I wanted to be in charge of stuff.  I wanted to be the guy that people came to when they had troubles.  I wanted to be noticed for being important.  I needed to be needed, and I really wanted to be paid for being needed.  I figured that people who were needed would be able to get paid really well, and then I could go prove to my parents that I was justified for failing out of college…twice.

     It was during these years when I came to the end of myself.  I often tell people now that there was no more Billy left to mess up.  It came at a time when I was told that I had to change venues because my coworkers thought I was unfair and mean.  I believe that my mean and unfair perception was due to my behavior while I was running from God.  Prior to that time, I had been promoted to an assistant of sorts and spent part of my time taking pictures, and part of my time helping with the daily operations of the “closet.”  Those promotions fed into my entitled ego and I began to believe that the future would show that I was needed as a leader, and management material.  I found my little piece of real estate to plant my flag into, and I decided that I would be able to build a foundation of future leadership off of this little island of “Assistant Venue Coordinator” or something like that.  Honestly I don’t even remember the title anymore.  I just didn’t want to have to actually go back to college because I didn’t think I could pass the classes.  But having my ego handed to me that day when I was told I would have to leave Epcot was a reminder that my identity was not about being an authority figure.  It wasn't working because I was working against God's plan for my life.  My identity was in Jesus Christ.  Also, I made a commitment to my parents to go to college.    Leaders don’t become leaders by running from their commitments.  In my first attempt at being a leader I had used my own standard of personal judgment on other people.  The problem with that is that I wasn’t even living up to my own standard of judgment, so it was pretty narcissistic and hypocritical to expect other people to live up to it.

     To shorten a long story I’ll say this.  I took a few months to look at myself in the mirror, and was accepted back in to college.  I was also allowed back to Epcot as a photographer.  I also stopped running from God.  I will never forget my moment of repentance about the sins I had committed over the course of those years in rebellion against God.  From that point on I became focused on serving people instead of obsessing about leading people.  This part was not a conscious decision, it is just what naturally followed as a result of returning to the foot of the cross.  I spent my last year at Epcot as a full time college student and just a regular photographer.  No title or expectations for leadership.  A funny thing happened during that year.   As I was focused on serving my coworkers in the job, they began coming to me for things that felt a lot like leadership.   The more I helped people without any expectations for building up my ego, the more I realized that leadership works best for me when I’m in the mindset of a servant. 

     I graduated from college the week a different company took over the photography at Epcot.  Ironic huh?  I went on to a different job and attended graduate school for psychology full time.  Instead of failing out this time, I earned straight A's all the way through, which is a different story for another day.  But after graduate school I was responsible for the safety and treatment of twelve foster children and twenty staff members at a therapeutic group home.  I had become an authority figure.  I didn't ask for it.  In fact, it was a role that ate therapists for lunch.  I always remembered the lessons that I learned at Epcot, and taught the foster kids and the staff to overcome the unfairness that they were focused on by serving others.  They came to me with the idea that the world owed them something, and for the most part, it was hard to argue that point.  The kids had already had everything stripped from them.  The staff were responsible for things that were seemingly beyond their control.  But teaching them to serve others was much better than any behavior modification program.  Encouraging someone to help their friends and their authority figures is easier to do and more appropriate than behavioral therapy in the moment.  Everyone can understand loving your neighbor.

     How about you?  Do you feel inspired to lead?  If you do, then what is your motivation to lead?  Is it to gain wealth?  Power and fame?  Do you feel like the world owes you something?  It's a painful road to try to convince the world that it needs you.  It's much easier to meet people where they hurt and to try to help them overcome the thing that is holding them back from accomplishing their goals.

     I return to Epcot from time to time to remind myself where I come from and to remember my friends.  I am blessed to bring my wife and daughter.  I try to remember that I am not entitled to the life that I have.  It is a blessing to have this life, in spite of the fact that I wounded other people along the way.  I promise my memory of my friends that I will always honor their time in my life by encouraging people to be a servant instead of being an authority.  I want my daughter to be able to return to this spot, and stand on the raised ledge at the front gate of Epcot.    I want her to know that each picture of a family in front of Space Ship Earth has a story.  I want her to know that her story started here. 

You Are The Therapy

     I want to do a little bit of self-disclosure for this blog post.  The most important thing I learned in graduate school was a very simple sentence.  I will never forget my professor Dr. Lawson saying, “You are the therapy.”  
     “What the heck did that mean?” I thought. 
     What he meant was that my therapy comes from my experience.   It also meant that what I learned from life would be the medicine that I would bring to people.  It stuck out in my mind because of the conviction in his voice when he said it.  At that time I had not really learned enough about counseling to know how much of a guiding principle this would be for me.  I knew that I was attending graduate school for counseling psychology because I felt God leading me in that direction.  I was also trying to hide the guilt from my past.  I was trying to keep it from my psychology teachers…I was a little paranoid.  I thought many times to myself that maybe they were on to me.  I just knew they were secretly diagnosing me.  Could they use their secret psychology powers to discover the things I had done in my previous college “experiences?”  If they found out would they think less of me as a Christian, or as a student?  Ok, that’s enough self -disclosure.  You might learn too much about me if you keep nagging me like this.  Ok, fine.  I’ll tell you.
     I became aware of a verse in Romans and it changed my life.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  I was immediately aware that Paul, who wrote this passage, struggled with his own sin, and he was a prominent writer of New Testament books.  If Paul could struggle with his own life story and be confident that God was using his life to point to Jesus, then who am I to say that God could not use my life to point to Jesus?  This made Dr. Lawson’s point hit home for me. 
     Now, as a therapist and as a teacher, I draw on my life stories to normalize what people reveal in therapy and class.  I don’t want people to be paranoid about my “secret psychology powers.”  The truth is I’m at least as broken as they are.  I have days where my wife tolerates me, and my daughter is not impressed with how I push her on the swing.  But one thing I have found is that just being genuine with my wife and my daughter works much better than trying to be perfect or trying to hide behind appearing to be perfect.  Also as a teacher, I find that people relate to my stories of having stuttering problems as a teenager (up until I was about 21 really).  They like to hear that I was suspended from college (twice, but who’s counting) for bad grades.  People appreciate a humble person who has learned from mistakes, more than they respect an egomaniac.   They would much rather hear that I was broken for several years, and then made a dramatic turnaround.  So when I talk about overcoming failure in college, the story doesn’t end in me dropping out of school.   I turned from my sinful choices, and then went on to make straight A’s throughout the rest of college and graduate school.  When I think back to my days of failure, it makes my current situation seem unreal.  How does a stuttering, kid who can’t motivate himself enough to actually show up to his classes, go on to make straight A’s in graduate school?  How does he become a licensed talk therapist and then marry a speech therapist?  Because… God causes all things to work together for good, to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.  It’s a much better, and more real story than the letters behind my name would lead you to believe.  Billy Barnett MS, LMHC.