THAT ONE TIME I MET THE PRESIDENT AND SHOOK HIS HAND TWICE
by Joshua Routh
In the insightful book ‘Luxury Sales Force Management’, by Michaela Merk, the author refers to a study in The International Journal of Human Resource Management titled ‘An Analysis Of Employee Recognition’. From this work she created what she calls the “Three Pillars of Sales Force Recognition”. Listed in order of motivational importance they are:
1. Recognition Expressed By Customers
2. Recognition Expressed By Management
3. Recognition Expressed By Colleagues
I find the idea that people feel and appreciate a greater sense of gratitude from customers most of all interesting and true. I would amend the word customers for a broader definition and say:
1. Recognition Expressed By Those We Serve
As I was reading the chapter it reminded me, of the simplest of acknowledgements, the handshake. Yes, it is a sign of greeting and agreement. It is also a symbol of gratitude, and it is truly an exceptional way to create a connection, grasping another person’s hand, looking in their eyes and saying “Thank you.”
I began noodling over the many handshakes I have received, and this led inevitably to one of the most meaningful handshakes and one of the most awkward handshakes I ever received. Both happened in the same day.
We should start with the awkward handshake and get that one out of the way.
It was June 1998, that I met my boss at the time, one of the most famous people in the world, the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton (please note this is not a political post).
I say he was my boss because I was serving in a Federal Program, AmeriCorps. Specifically I was serving as a member of the Emergency Response Team. We were responsible for working in natural disasters, teaching disaster preparedness trainings for FEMA, and US Forest Service projects like trail building and forest fire fighting.
We also worked on many local projects like maintaining 120 miles of the Ozark Trail or helping folks affected by flooding in St. Louis.
Nationally we worked the aftermath of an ice storm in New Hampshire and Maine, an inland hurricane in Michigan and the Florida fire of 1998 in Daytona. This is where our story takes place.
Daytona was a massive and messy undertaking. Fire crews were working night and day. The problem was that the fire was traveling underground and popping up in other places. We would put out a fire and it would reappear a hundred yards away.
A week or so after our arrival we received word that our team was going to be attending a press event at the Daytona Speedway. The President was coming down to meet all the fire fighters and first responders, give a speech, give thanks, shake some hands and take some photos. We were told we might get a photo but don’t count on it.
To my goony 19 year old self, this was pretty wild news. I had arrived. I was a part of something so big the President of The United States had noticed.
When we arrived at the raceway, I was expecting much greater security. We definitely were checked over, scanned and prodded, but in my mind I think I expected there would be some kind of interview or interrogation as well. It was a bit more lax than that.
We were then gathered up in a large tent and the President spoke. I have no idea what he said because in my excitement I was slowly, deftly working my way, through the crowd, up to the front of the masses. I had to meet him and hopefully shake his hand. What a story that would someday make!
At the end of his talk I was at his feet, literally. He stepped down from the stage and began shaking hands. I dried my hand on pants and I was ready. I believe I was the third or fourth handshake.
The President appeared, he looked me in the eyes and he shook my hand. I reached forward with gusto. To my utter amazement, his handshake was very, very extremely limp. His hand slide through mine as if I was vainly trying to grasp a skinned mango. Not really slimy, though somewhat moist, but seriously, there was little to grasp.
It should be said that the president shakes many more hands a year than we mere mortals. Still, I was taken aback. So much so, that I did what any self respecting amateur scientist would do, I retested the experience.
I plowed through the crowd, working my way across the back of the receiving line. Eventually, I found another spot to squeeze into. The President appeared, looked me in the eyes. His eyes flared like a spooked horse, he clearly recognized me from 10 handshakes earlier. His face relaxed to maybe a bit perturbed, maybe bit weirded out. Did I mention I was just a goony 19 year old kid? I can only imagine what he was thinking in that moment, but alas it was verified. He shook my hand again, and moved on fairly quickly, the hypothesis proven, it was again, a weak and limp handshake.
I always wonder why it was, later that day when we got our picture taken with him, why they put me so far off to the edges…
Quick fun fact: According to a new study, you will shake 15,000 hands in your lifetime. Considering this, you might be surprised to learn that 1 in 5 people don't wash their hands and of those that do only 30% use soap. It is no surprise that the fist bump is gaining in popularity. Its even been employed by the Dalai Lama.
In defense of Bill Clinton’s handshake, the President meets roughly 100 to 250 a day. To extrapolate: If the President shakes an average of 175 that means he meets about 64,875 people a year, so he meets an approximately 255,500 people in the course of a four year term. That's a lot of hands to shake. No wonder he holds back a little (or a lot).
At the start of this little love letter to handshakes, I promised to share about the most meaningful handshake I ever received. It is not as elaborate of a story, but more than poignant. On our way back to the hotel after leaving the raceway, we grabbed dinner at a dive restaurant near the beach. After the meal I was heading to the counter to pay, when I arrived at the register the cashier informed me that the owner had picked up the tab. "For all of us?", I asked as confused as Bill Clinton shaking hands with the same person in a receiving line repeatedly. She replied that he had. I asked to speak to him.
Moments later a bug gruff bearded man with a crusty white apron stepped around the corner. I said, "I just wanted to thank you, but you didn't have to do that!"
"Please." He said. "It's the very least I can do. All of the tourists are gone and I am not sure how we will make it through this summer season. I saw you all sitting there and I could tell that you were some of the folks here to help. I just want to thank you." With that he looked me in the eyes, stuck out his hand and gave me a massively firm handshake I will never forget.
I matched his strength and got a little teary. I am now a little teary 25 years later remembering it. It was at that moment, that I realized what we did matters. The choices we make matter, and serving others matters. It was way more powerful and simple than a Presidential speech, and maybe not a funny story about some goony kid, but a moment of two humans connecting deeply in a time of uncertainty.