‘Alan, I’ll be in early to explain” What a smashed Galaga arcade machine taught me about empathic leadership.

2:39 AM MARCH 1983 Six Flags over Texas

Date is approximate, time of day and location is not

I heard the crash and immediately knew what had happened. I had ONE JOB, it was to deliver a precious, BRAND NEW Galaga machine worth approximately $2200 from one of the several arcades at Six Flags over Texas to our shop, behind Good Times Square. The route required me to go under a train bridge where the Six Flags train circled the park.

I was young and had “worked my way up the chain” at Six Flags to the coveted role of “Arcade Mechanic”, where my job was to fix arcade machines, trains, boats, dollar changers, ski ball machines, etc. I wore a radio on my belt and basically “roamed” the park looking for problems, but mostly talking to girls.

It was an awesome job.

The Awesome ARCADE Shop of the early 80s at Six Flags over Texas. From right to left, Alan, Steve and Charlie (me). Credit to Alan Kilpatrick for this photo

Occasionally, some tasks could only be done at night. Like moving a machine across the park. I regularly worked late at Six Flags, it was fun. It was a little creepy, but there was a surprising amount of activity in the park even at 2:30 AM.

Six Flags over Texas in the 80s.

I loaded the machine with one of the little golf carts we used to haul stuff around the park, I placed the machine upright on the back. And yep, drove under the train bridge.


And there it was. This arcade machine is worth more than I would make in the whole summer, in what appeared to be 1000 parts spread across the concrete under the bridge.

I looked around. Good, no one saw. I quickly gathered the evidence and loaded it into our arcade shop. I knew Alan, my boss would be there at about 8 AM the next morning. I contemplated what to do. This is before cell phones, and anyway, it’s 2:39 AM.

I scribbled a pathetic note on the wreckage.

“Alan, I will be in early to explain”

And I went home ready to lose my job the next morning. I was set to work again at 2 PM the next day for a swing shift. I got up and came in early, getting there about 11 AM. Walking in, I was amazed to see that Alan had completely re-assembled the machine and other than a few scratches, it was fully functional.

He looked at me, I looked at him and we both busted out laughing. The Galaga machine is probably still in service somewhere.

Here’s the message here. I told the truth. He trusted me to not do anything until he heard the truth from me. To me this was one of my first lessons in leadership empathy.

Look, we all make mistakes. Sometimes they are really expensive, sometimes they are not. I have had employees over the years make mistakes that cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. Did I fire that employee? NO! But, we made sure we learned from the mistake and did everything we could to make sure NO ONE else made the same mistake.


I had prepared exceedingly well. I knew exactly what this customer needed to do to solve their issues and get our software implemented. I had done dozens of successful software implementations. I KNEW what was needed and I was INTENT on explaining this to our customers’ CEO.

I was thrown out of the building.

Get the hell out of my office you SMUG American

In hindsight, of COURSE, I was thrown out of the building. He was the CEO, I was a vendor and I felt compelled to tell HIM why HE was the reason for OUR non-performance.

I was a dumbass. Period.

My boss, the owner of this company is a very successful software entrepreneur. I was fortunate to be working with him after my first startup had failed spectacularly. He had advised me that perhaps my messaging for that meeting was a bit “Inflammatory”. Nope, I’m doing this. I’m right.

He wanted to grab some drinks after work, which was his way of getting status from his executives. I came in, feeling quite low and had to explain that he was right and I was wrong and I had been thrown out of his customer’s office. His response still surprised me. “What did we learn?”. Well, for starters I learned not to be a dumbass.

Once again, I told the truth and as a leader, he chose to be empathetic and he chose to invest in me as his employee versus punish me.

Years later, I’ve been faced with countless situations where an employee “messed up”. And every time, the experience I had with these two leaders is now part of my DNA in decision making.

Now my default position is to trust the employee first, and look for the learning and grow from the experience.

Next time you are in a position to judge a mistake, stop and think about what we learned and make an investment in your employee.

It will pay dividends.