My niece and I stared up at the mountain, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. A tramway ride up Mount San Jacinto in the retirement town of Palm Springs did not sound like a thrilling adventure, yet looking at the almost vertical route of the tram to the tippy top of the mountain, we were a little intimidated.
We were ushered into a tram with a capacity of 80 people, so personal space was not a thing. We got to know our neighbors and their smells very well on the ride. The tram driver welcomed us and cautioned us that the floor rotates during the ride. He also told us that the tram will rock when we pass by the tower transition stations. Fun 60s music started to play as the driver put the tram into gear and started our ten minute journey up the mountain.
We were chatting with the two men next to us, one of them giving us tips because he had taken the ride many times before. The other was a first-time rider, like us, and he expressed our same concerns as we got a closer look at our journey up the mountain. Then came the first tower transition station…and the screams of terror. Needless to say, the screams did not ease our tension. After the tram stopped rocking, two older ladies pushed their way through the crowd to grab onto the handles around the edges of the tram. They were panicked and they plastered themselves up next to one of the men next to us. My niece Lauren and I took pictures of the scenery and of each other as we danced and laughed to help each other feel comfortable. We were all relieved when the tram ride ended as we arrived at the top of the mountain.
The views were absolutely amazing and the trip up the mountain was totally worth it. We would do it again in a heartbeat.
After a few fun hours of exploring, taking countless selfies, sharing some sidewinder fries, and learning that my niece is terrified of lizards (even teeny- tiny geckos), we decided we were ready for our ride back down the mountain. The line was long but moved pretty quickly. Before we knew it, we were being ushered back into the crowded tram, wondering if the ride down would be even scarier than the ride up.
Our tensions were relieved somewhat as soon as we saw the big smile on the face of our driver. He welcomed us aboard, told us to fill in all the space because it would be a full tram, and reassured us that there was room for everyone if we work together. Before the ride even started, the 60s music was playing again. But this time he told us that it would be a sing-along. We barely noticed that we were moving down the hill and rotating as we all belted out the chorus of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. Good times never felt so good.
Just before we came to the first tower transfer station, our driver told us to be ready for some rocking and rolling, and then led us in a fun woo hoo as we swayed back and forth. He had another park employee standing next to him and she was singing her heart out and had a smile a mile wide the entire ride. Looking at them, the rest of the fear about the tram and the rocking just melted away. Before we knew it, we were back at the base of the mountain and we were disappointed that the ride was over.
Before we left the park, my niece and I walked into the gift shop to pick up a couple souvenirs. I took my magnet to the cashier and noticed that she was the same woman who was singing her heart out next to the driver on the tram ride.
“I loved your singing! You helped make the ride down so much fun,” I told her as she helped me with my purchase. “That driver was fantastic. There was such a difference in the vibe on the ride down. He put everyone at ease.”
“Thank you! I love riding with Gil, he is a great person. They even wrote an article about him, they call him the Tram Man. When he interviewed to be a tram driver, he thought he was interviewing to drive a bus.” She laughed as she told us the last part.
I replied, “Thank you, I’ll look that article up. We are here for the National School Transformation Conference and I present tomorrow about school culture. I’m thinking about changing my presentation to include Gil. It is amazing the impact strong, positive leadership can have in scary moments, even when things literally get rocky.”
The cashier loved the idea of Gil being highlighted and as we said good-bye, she told us that she would let Gil know about the impact he had on us.
The same steep mountain.
The same swaying at the transfer stations.
The same rotating floor.
Even the same type of upbeat, fun music.
Two very different leaders.
Our first driver was focused on managing us. He made sure that he communicated the necessary facts, kept us safe, and was pleasant enough. The music helped distract us and calm our nerves a bit, but it couldn’t mask our fear entirely. You can hear the terror in the screams in the first video.
My niece and I thought that going down the mountain might be even scarier than going up. But not with Gil at the helm. His smile and singing not only made the ride more fun, it helped us feel confident in his leadership. He loved driving the tram and he was so confident in his skills that he could have fun with us while he was keeping us safe. He could have been having one of the worst days in his life, but we would have never known it. He was focused on us.
He let us know that it was going to be a rocky ride, but instead of screaming in terror, he led us in a whoop of excitement. This helped us view the transfer stations as exciting obstacles rather than perils of death.
As an educational leader, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the leadership Gil provided and school leadership. Yes, we will go through scary, uncertain times together. But, leadership can have a significant impact on how those times feel. If I exude confidence, if others can tell that I love my job, if I lead them in having fun even in the difficult times, climbing mountains together can feel exciting and important rather than intimidating and risky.
What stuck with me the most was the difference in the tone of the screams when things got rocky at the transfer stations. When the leader was focused on managing and logistics, the cries were of terror. When the leader was focused on the people and the culture, the cries were of joy and excitement. Here is a quote from Gil Moreno himself in the Tram Man article:
Though the two tramcars, which run simultaneously in opposite directions 20 times per day, are operated from the tramway building, Moreno is responsible for tracking the car’s progress with an onboard computer. However, he says he wasn’t long on the job before he found that his prior experience as a barber was the best preparation for the job.
“I am constantly looking for that person who has their hands on the bar and is looking down,” he says. “As a barber I learned to talk to people one-on-one. I put my hand on their shoulder and keep them distracted. My job is to spot the panic attack and turn it around.”
Gil might not give himself enough credit, however. Not only has he trained himself to spot panic and turn it around, he also he creates an environment that prevents panic before it begins. What a powerful example of the impact a leader can have, even in the scariest of times. We have so much more influence than we even imagine.
How can we all be more Gil?
- Smile when you greet your staff, every day. Smiling big and confidently eases some tensions immediately. If you are joyful, others will join in.
- There is a big difference between managing and leading, even on tramways.
- Don’t shy away from the hard times, embrace them with confidence knowing that we can do anything together.
- Music is powerful, but leading sing-alongs to the music ramps up its energizing power tenfold. (A fannypack with speakers helps with this.)
- Whoop it up when things get rocky. It might get a little scary, but a little “woo hoo” helps us look as those rocky times as surmountable adventures rather than terrifying obstacles.
- Most of all, always focus on the people right in front of you. Help create a culture of joy by being joyful yourself. When you see panic on their faces, a hand on the shoulder can go a long way.
I am looking forward to embracing my inner Gil in the new school year. Who’s up for joining me?
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
-Thich Nhat Hanh