Leadership and the cockroach letter

Published 6:00 am Friday, October 15, 2021

On a dinner flight, the man opened his meal. Right on top of the salad he saw an enormous cockroach. When he got home, he wrote an indignant letter to the president of the airline. A few days later, a special delivery letter came from the president of the airline. He was all apologies.

“This was very unusual, but don’t worry. That particular airplane has been fumigated. In fact, all the seats and upholstery were stripped out. We took disciplinary action against the steward who served you the meal. I can assure you that will never happen again. And I trust you will continue to fly with us.”

The man was impressed by the letter until he noticed something. Quite by accident, the letter he had written had stuck to the back of the president’s letter. When he looked closer, he saw a note at the bottom that said, “Send this guy the regular cockroach letter”

Oh my! There is a customer who is concerned about the quality of the service. A cockroach in your salad is not my idea of professional service, so the customer writes a letter of complaint.

The response comes quickly and professionally from the leader in charge. It expresses concern and promises to take immediate action to correct the problem. But underneath that letter is a mistake that exposes the real attitude behind the words. The letter is a lie. The leader doesn’t care about the customer. He only wants to look concerned. To look like he cares.

“Send the regular cockroach letter.” How many times have we elected politicians and leaders who said one thing but just as soon as they got into office did the opposite? Some of you might cynically say: “When did we not elect those kinds of politicians? The good ones are exceptions!”

I became a pastor during the “Evangelist Scandal.” Jim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart and others were in the news almost daily for some form of betrayal of the trust followers placed in them. Since I was a former automobile dealer, I remember joking with other pastors that I was stepping from one distrusted profession into another.

Many years ago, what looked like a beautiful and sturdy tree fell near my house. So, why did it fall? As I walked around the fallen tree, I noticed that the lower trunk was hollow inside and there were thousands of little bugs crawling around inside. These bugs had literally eaten out the heart of that giant tree until there was nothing left to support it.

“Send the regular cockroach letter” type leaders damage the organizations they lead just as surely as the bugs destroyed that tree. You may not notice at first, or you may hope that it will somehow fix itself, but over time, the damage will eat the heart out, and the organization will fall.

Nehemiah in the Bible faced a “cockroach letter” leader named Sanballat as the people of Jerusalem struggled to rebuild their wall. Not only were they not going to get any help from Sanballat, but they received active resistance to everything they were attempting to accomplish.

The response of Nehemiah is a great example of leadership meeting resistance.

Then I prayed, “Hear us, our God, for we are being mocked. May their scoffing fall back on their own heads and may they themselves become captives in a foreign land! Do not ignore their guilt. Do not blot out their sins, for they have provoked you to anger here in front of the builders.” (Nehemiah 4:4-5)

1. Nehemiah recognized the danger and responded immediately with prayer.

2. He then named the problem before God: “We are being mocked.”

3. He asked for help, secure in his trust and faith in God.

4. Nehemiah recognized the magnitude and the danger of their attitude and began to prepare himself and his team.

Nehemiah responded first with prayer then naming the problem and asking for specific help in dealing with the situation. He recognized that he must take certain steps to deal with the Sanballat’s we all face occasionally.

Jesus said in Matthew (10:16) “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard …”

Aristotle wrote: “Conflict or criticism is something you can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing.”

There are two lessons dealing with “send the cockroach letter” type leaders. One is to pray for God to guide my response to their callous and dangerous behavior. The second lesson is to pray for guidance and strength to avoid ever becoming that type of leader.

May God continually guide our actions and our attitude as we live and work in a world full of “send the cockroach letter” style leaders. May we represent Christ wherever we go in a way that will allow others to see the love and grace that is the foundation of our faith. Amen.

REV. LARRY E. DAVIES can be reached at larrydavies@vaumc.org.