Last week, someone pointed a gun at me in a dive bar in Wisconsin.
My friend Jake and I were on a road trip, and he had a hankering for his favorite beer, so we drove across the Illinois-Wisconsin border to get it.
As we sipped our Spotted Cows, we noticed a young man taking shots with a handful of other men, who were all taking a break from playing pool. Then, that same young man walked behind the bar and started serving a couple of other patrons. Oh, I thought, he’s the bartender.
As he started to talk to the two men he’d just served, his speech slurred and he made grandiose gestures with his hands while talking loudly. Oh, I thought, he’s drunk. Then, as he spoke with these men while clearing empty pints off the bar, he reached in his waistband and pulled out a pistol.
As he did this, he grinned and angled the firearm sideways, inadvertently pointing it in the direction of where I was sitting. I saw this, glanced at my friend, and both of our eyes widened.
“Excuse me,” Jake said to the bartender, “did you realize you just pointed a gun at my friend?”
The bartender, still smiling, walked over and said calmly, “Do we have a problem here?”
“Yeah, we do. You pointed a gun at my friend.”
“Oh, no. You don’t understand. You see, we’ve had a lot of problems in this place lately, and this is for your protection. I’m here for your safety. I’m one of the good guys.”
My friend said he didn’t feel very safe with a man pointing a gun at his clientele. The bartender continued to repeat that he was, in fact, a servant of the people and we owed him our lives for protecting us from the riff-raff.
Now, to be fair, he assured us the gun didn’t have a live round in the chamber but plenty in the clip. I grew up around guns, so it didn’t feel like a life-threatening situation. Nonetheless, a drunk bartender waving around a gun at midnight does not necessarily provide the greatest comfort.
“I’m here for your protection,” he kept saying. “I’m one of the good guys. You’re safe here.”
My friend never backed down from his position that maybe you shouldn’t pull out a gun in public when there is no visible threat. Eventually, seeing the situation was not going to be resolved, we left, as the bartender hurled insults and obscenities at us, telling us to never come back.
The next day, I thought about what he said: I’m one of the good guys.
Isn’t that interesting? He kept talking about how crazy things were in America right now and how we needed protection from the “bad guys.” But where were these purported villains? I didn’t see any. And isn’t that what the bad guy often says in the movies: “I’m doing this for your own good, it’ll be worth it in the end, just trust me”?
We all do this, of course. We assume we are the ones on the right side of history, those protecting the innocent, the heroes of the story. It is hard, if not impossible, for our egos to conceive that we may, in fact, be the villain—or that reality may be a little more complex than that.
The truth is it wasn’t that man’s job to be “one of the good guys,” to assume the position of hero. We were his patrons, his customers, and he was there to serve us. Not… well, shoot us in the face.
Yes, I’m being a little melodramatic here, but hopefully, you see my point. We didn’t need a cowboy. We needed a bartender.
So here’s my challenge to you and me:
When we think about the work we do and the influence we want, let’s consider how we might be taking the wrong position here. We don’t need you to wave a gun around and protest that we’re all safe here. That doesn’t work. Nor do we need you to be the hero in our story. That’s our job. You are the helper, the guide, the one who helps others feel safe.
This is how you create trust, how you get people to follow you, and pay attention to your message. You take care of them, help them feel understood and accepted. You make sure their drinks are full. It’s not that hard. You just have to let go of the story in your head that says you need to be saving someone right now. Try it, and see how hard that actually is and how much people love you for it. You can do it, promise. Be the bartender. Put away the gun.