Tag Archives: responsibility

Releasing the Clutch

When I was fifteen, my mom took me to a large and empty church parking lot on Saturday afternoons and taught me to drive….sort of.  She had good intentions but lacked the patience to put up with my herky-jerky ineptness at releasing the clutch.  I just could not get it!  Maybe it’s premature to try to teach a teenager how to drive a manual transmission before he has even gained control of his own gangly arms and legs.

I did fine once I got it in third or fourth gear, but I was miserable at the lower gears.  In first, I would rev up the engine until it begged for mercy.  Then I would try to easy up on the clutch with both eyes closed and every muscle in my body tightly clenched.  No matter how many times I tried, the end result was always the same – a bucking bronco ride in my little, burnt-brown Honda Civic.  Sometimes, I even stayed in the saddle the full eight seconds – one hand on the stick shift and my mom’s hands in the air.  I was one tough import-riding hombre.

It’s been almost 25 years, but I’m still taking driving lessons.  Not in a car – I’ve long since bought an automatic.  Now I’m learning to drive as a parent of teenagers, and it’s every bit as herky-jerky as those Saturday afternoons outside the Presbyterian church.

Instead of a clutch and a gas pedal, I’m struggling to learn how to interchange autonomy and control.  It’s nerve-racking!  I’m always using too much of one or the other.  Either I give my kids too much autonomy, and they end up abusing my trust and getting into things they have no business getting into, or I enforce too much control and “ruin” their lives with my “arbitrary” life-sucking rules.

What makes it worse is that my wife and I are both trying to “drive this car.”  We’ve each got our own steering wheel, clutch, brake and gas pedal.  When we agree about where we should go, things go pretty smoothly, but if she turns left when I turn right, our family comes to a jerking stop.

And maybe it’s God’s sense of humor, but he made my wife more of a clutch person (control) and me more of a gas person (autonomy).  That adds no end of fun to the driving experience!  Our kids learned these differences long ago, and they are constantly giving me opportunities to get pulled over by my wife for reckless driving.  (In our family, she doubles as driver and law enforcement officer.)

What we want is “wreck-less driving.”  Less big mistakes, less arguments, less hurt feelings, less wear and tear on our teenage model domestics.  I’ve learned that the first rule of “wreck-less driving” is synchronizing directions and pedal movements with my wife.  Even if we make a wrong turn, it’s better to make it together.  That means frequent communication and a willingness to give each other the right-of-way at times.

The second rule of “wreck-less driving” is to listen to the sound of the engine (it represents our kids’ thoughts and opinions).  The sound the engine makes helps us know if we are giving it too much clutch or too much gas.  When we give it too much clutch, the engine will whine (and whine and whine and whine…)  That doesn’t mean we should always give it the gas, but the engine’s complaints can tell us when we need to let go a little.  Remember the advice from Apostle Paul:

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)

Too much control prevents our kids from developing the wisdom and driving skills they will need when they are out on their own.  It can lead to rebellion and bitterness while we are at the wheel and wild, authority-defying behaviors once they start driving their own cars.

On the other hand, when we give our teens too much gas, their engines can get clogged with impurities.  We’ve got to keep an eye on their fuel source, because it influences the quality of decisions they make when we give them some autonomy.  This is the third rule of “wreck-less driving.”

If our kids are spending daily time in the Word of God and have some close, godly friends, the fuel is probably pretty clean.  But if they are spending most of their time around the T.V. or with a negative peer group, it’s likely that their thinking won’t have the maturity for them to get much mileage out of it.  By listening to their engines (thoughts and opinions), we are likely to hear early warning signs that indicate we need to take our foot off of the gas.

In my own humble view, I think parenting is much more difficult than learning to drive.  It’s crazy that no one asks us to pass a parental driving test before getting behind the wheel.  We’ve got to do most of our learning on the freeways and tollways of life, and it’s definitely a white-knuckle experience.  But our kids will never grow into maturity if we always drive like we have Miss Daisy in the car.  Our kids need the experience of building speed by practicing making decisions on their own.  Along the way, they will get in some fender benders and earn their share of traffic tickets, but as long as we follow the “wreck-less” rules, they should be okay.  So, don’t be afraid to give them the gas every once in a while!



Filed under accountability, authority, autonomy, coaching, communication, conflict, delegation, discipleship, Fathering, growth, leadership, management, marriage, parenting

Arrive Alive

Three men led expeditions to be the first to reach the South Pole in the early 1900’s: Robert Falcon Scott (1902-1903 and 1911-1912), Ernest Shackleton (1908-1909) and Roald Amundsen (1911-1912).  Shackleton was actually part of Scott’s three-man party in the first failed attempt, and during the long, exhausting and disappointing march back, the two grew into rivals. Shackleton returned five years later with his own team and bested Scott’s first attempt by leading his men 366 miles closer to the South Pole.  Although Scott was the one who ultimately achieved the Pole, Shackleton proved to be the better leader precisely because he did not.

Shackleton’s journey toward the Pole was costly.  All four in his party were slowly starving to death.   Each time severe weather conditions (temperatures reaching lows of -57 degrees Fahrenheit with blizzard winds over 90 mph) and dangerous terrain slowed their progress, Shackleton had to reduce their rations to ensure that they had enough food to last.  The party originally had four horses to pull the heavy sledges full of supplies, but three horses succumbed to the elements and one fell into a deep chasm that almost claimed one of Shackleton’s men, as well.  The men were forced to man-haul the sledges, and the few handfuls of food a day were just not enough.

Shackleton got within just 97 miles of the Pole before he turned his team back.  It was a huge disappointment for all the men, but it was the right decision.  While they were only a few days’ journey away from being the first explorers to reach either of the planet’s poles, they would certainly have lost their lives in the attempt.  Courageously leading his men back to the shore, Shackleton kept them all alive through expert leadership, tenacity and skillful rationing of their remaining food supplies.

Shackleton never made it to the Pole, but Scott would not accept a second failure when he returned a few years later.  He was determined to do what his rival could not.  Like Shackleton’s party, Scott lost all his horses along the way.  Dog sled teams and their leaders were forced to turn back in December, and only five men were left to make a final assault on the pole.  He and his men marched a total of 1,842 miles before they finally reached the Pole on January 17, 1912.  But to their utter disappointment, they found that Amundsen’s team had already been there five weeks earlier.

Dejected and exhausted, Scott’s men began the long trek back to the shore, but they would never make it.  In February, one of the men died after a fall caused him to have a swift physical and mental breakdown.  In mid-March, the weakest member of the team realized he was slowing the others down (he had lost the use of a foot to frostbite and gangrene) and sacrificed his life for them by leaving the tent and marching out into the snow, never to be seen again.  A severe blizzard trapped the three remaining men in their tent a few weeks later, and there they all starved to death.  Conquest of the Pole had cost them their lives.  Ironically, they were within eleven miles of the next food and supply depot.  Their bodies were discovered eight months later by a search party.

When Scott’s diary made it back to England, he was celebrated as a hero and even knighted posthumously.  In the eyes of his countrymen, his failure was a success in terms of its boldness and daring.  Shackleton’s accomplishments just two years before were all but forgotten.  But Shackleton was not surprised.  He had counted the cost when the Pole was in reach, and he chose the health and safety of his men over the glory of accomplishment.

Leaders who are only interested in their own achievements see their team members as a means to an end.  They are willing to sacrifice their followers if their loss will bring them closer to their goals.  But the best leaders are not in it for themselves.  They can’t conceive of success at the expense of their teams, and the goals aren’t worth achieving if the team can’t celebrate the accomplishment.

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Filed under Challenges, character, delayed gratification, determination, failure, Goals, Instant Gratification, leadership, management, parenting, priorities, Priority, sacrifice, Service, Serving Others

The Skin of the Truth

Some college students had a final exam coming up, but the weekend before they took the test was a great weekend to head to the mountains and ski.  “The snow was perfect!” they heard.  After some discussion, they decided that they could do their studying at the lodge in between times on the slopes.  So, they packed up their gear and headed for the mountains.

Sunday evening came, and they decided to blow off the final the next day.  They were having too much fun, and they hadn’t done the studying that they had planned to do.  Two days later, they arrived at their professor’s office with a carefully collaborated story about being stranded in the mountains after blowing a tire.  Things went from bad to worse when a blizzard overtook them, and they had to spend several days in a farmhouse off the road.

The professor was very understanding and allowed that they could make up the final.  He put the students in separate rooms and handed them the test.  The first question for ten points was easy – “What is your name?”

They turned the page and saw that the second question was for the other ninety points – “Which tire?”

I heard an expression once that said an excuse is the skin of the truth stuffed with a lie.  If we’re honest with ourselves, most of our excuses are just that.  We show up late and blame traffic but fail to mention that we were running 20 minutes behind before we got stuck in the backup.  We miss a deadline and blame a co-worker for failing to get us the data on time, but we leave out the part about neglecting to ask him for it with appropriate notice.  We fall short of our goal and excuse it by pointing out the tough market but say nothing of the fact that we expected to fail and only gave 60% effort as a result.

If you want to create accountability on your team, it has to start with you.  That means no more excuses.  If you dropped the ball, own up to your part, and commit to getting a better hold on it next time.  While your team many not enthusiastically join you on the accountability train, your integrity will eventually create an accountability ethos on your team.

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Filed under accountability, blame, character

The Peter Principle

According to the Certified Financial Planners Board of Standards, Inc., nearly one-third of lottery winners go bankrupt.  There are undoubtedly a variety of reasons, but I have an idea about the root cause.  That which is earned without effort is often beyond our abilities to handle.

Maybe nearly one-third of lottery winners go bankrupt because they have not developed the financial maturity necessary to cope with so much money.  The internet is full of stories of lottery winners who invested in lousy business ventures, lent money to the wrong people, spent the money faster than it came in and even sold their rights to incremental payments for some up-front cash.

In this case, what is true of the lottery is true of leadership.  Those who receive lightning-fast promotions are typically singed in the process.  They rise within the organization faster than their skills develop.  Before long, they find themselves in a position that they can’t handle, and the results are usually messy.  Demotions, terminations, transfers to dead-end positions or dead-end teams, reduced responsibilities, early retirement…  If for some time no one seems to notice a manager’s incompetence, the manager will often try to cover it up.  The more there is at stake (pay, perks, pride, prestige…) the more desperate the manager often becomes to hide his or her struggles.  This can do no end of damage to an organization and its people.

With tongue in cheek, Laurence Peter defined this process as “The Peter Principle,” which states that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  He tells us that the solution is to make sure that the candidate has the skills to do the job in some degree before promoting him or her to do it.  There’s a benefit to promoting people slowly.  While they are in their current job, they should be developing the maturity and the skills they will need at the next level.  They should be making mistakes and learning from them.  (Making mistakes at lower levels of leadership is a lot less costly than making them at the higher levels.)

If you are a leader, a mentor, a coach, a parent….make sure those under your leadership are faithful with small things before you give them larger things.  When they earn it, they will learn it.

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Filed under coaching, delayed gratification, delegation, discipleship, failure, Fathering, growth, Instant Gratification, leadership, learning, management, mentoring, parenting, performance

A Tale of Two Brothers

Dr. Hans Selye, a pioneer in helping us understand stress, once told a story about two boys who grew up in the same home with an alcoholic and abusive father.  Adulthood took them down separate paths with differing priorities and life decisions.

Many years later, both men participated in the same psychological study, though each did it separately.  In-depth interviews with each one showed just how different they had become.  One would have nothing to do with alcohol and had become an upstanding and well-respected citizen in his community.  The other had followed his father’s example and become an alcoholic with a path of destruction in his wake.

When asked what factors influenced each brother’s lifestyle, both men returned the same answer, “What else would you expect when you have a father like mine?”

It’s not what happened to you; it’s how you responded to what happened to you that has created the person that you have become.  Have you chosen to become the victim or the victor?

If you chose the victim’s role, the sooner you accept accountability for your choices, the sooner you will begin to heal.  Blame and resentment over what happened to you only gives the other person or thing a never-ending supply of power over your life.  If you chose the victor’s role, then you undoubtedly know the truth behind the maxim, “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

Life has many things to teach us, but we have to show up ready to learn.

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Filed under acceptance, accountability, blame, character, Denial, growth, learned helplessness, overcoming obstacles, parenting, self-image

Broken Windows

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of New York City’s sudden drop in crime-rate during the mid-1990’s in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. When David Gunn was hired as the New York City subway director in 1984, he had a plan to reduce crime by using the principles of the “Broken Window Theory.”

The Broken Window Theory states that if you walk by a building that has a broken window, you automatically make some assumptions about the people who own the building and are responsible for its upkeep.  They apparently don’t care enough about the building to keep it in good working order and aesthetically pleasing.

While only a small percentage of people would take the owner’s neglect as license to continue vandalizing the property, most of us wouldn’t feel the need to take special care to keep it clean, either.  If the owners don’t care, then why should you?  If the broken window goes unattended long enough, we begin to transfer our low opinion to the surrounding neighborhood.  We take less and less responsibility, and the environment gets worse and worse.

Gunn’s idea focused on reducing crime by eliminating graffiti on the subway cars as soon as it appeared.  Under his “Clean Car Program,” new cars were introduced to the system one-by-one.  At the end of their routes, they were inspected for vandalism.  If any graffiti was found, the car was immediately repainted before it was put back into service.  Whenever more extensive damage was evident, the car was pulled from the line until it could be reconditioned.  By 1989, every single car had been cleaned.

Gunn’s initiative was taken up by William Bratton when he was appointed chief of the Transit Authority Police in 1990.  Bratton cracked down on turnstile jumpers who tried to ride for free and brought about innovations in the way arrests were processed so that they could be handled more easily and on-site.  Originally, officers were skeptical and even pessimistic of the new measures, but it’s hard to argue with a 75% reduction in subway crime in less than a decade.  By sweating the small stuff, they had signaled to would-be criminals that they cared enough to put up a fight for their subways.

The Broken Window Theory applies in many ways around us.  Any time we don’t care enough to pay attention to the details with our own stuff, it won’t be long before others start to ignore them, as well.  A little neglect on our part is likely to bring about wholesale disregard from those who have less ownership than we do.  In this respect, the small stuff does matter.

I see the principle at work in my own home on a regular basis.  If something gets stacked on the dining room table and stays there for any length of time, everyone assumes that the table is now the designated “stuff dumping site.”  Before long, it’s a mountain of indiscriminate piles that give birth to even more piles while we sleep.

And if we have “broken windows” when the kids’ friends come over, it’s a lost cause to get them to clean up after themselves.  When it looks like my own family doesn’t even care if our rooms or living areas are clean, visitors revert to their baser instincts.  In other words, “let the chips (and salsa) fall where they may.”

So, my new motto is: “Keep your ‘windows’ in good repair, and you’ll save yourself housekeeping despair.”

(S – Gladwell, Malcolm.  The Tipping Point)

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Filed under accountability, ownership

Sweat Equity

My family spent a Saturday the week before school began a few years ago helping furnish our kids’ new charter school.  It was a real start-up operation, and all the families had to contribute at least 40 hours of service time to get the school up and running.

We scraped and washed hundreds of hand-me-down desks and chairs and then carried them up to their classrooms.  I took the kids, part out of necessity and part as an object lesson.  None of them were particularly interested in the project to begin with, but four hours later, my oldest had undergone a change of heart.  Not only did he enjoy contributing to the set-up of his own school, but he also surprised me by talking about how excited he was for school to begin.

C14 had never liked school before, so what brought about the new attitude?  Two words: sweat equity.  The transformation took place during hours of hard work.  With each desk he washed, C14 was making an investment in the school.  At the end of the day, he had a level of ownership and the pride that went with it.  When he got to class the next week, he enjoyed pointing out the desks and chairs he had worked on and telling his friends, “I helped get that here.”

At other schools he had attended, the adults did all the work.  They got everything ready for him, and all he had to do was show up.  As a result, the adults had the sweat equity, but the children did not.

There’s a great lesson in this for us as leaders: if we want our team members to be committed to something, we shouldn’t take all the responsibility for getting it up and running.  Sometimes we do it all, because we don’t think our team members will do it just the way we want it done.  Sometimes it’s because we think they have too much on their plate already.  Sometimes it’s because we just enjoy doing it ourselves.  But whatever the reason, when we shoulder all the responsibility, our team’s commitment to the new direction lags, and we are often left wondering why they aren’t as excited as we are.

Allow your team members in from the very beginning.  Let them help you come up with the vision, the action steps, the marketing, the communication….everything!  Then, let them join you in the set-up work.  The more you involve them, the more sweat equity they will have.  When it becomes their project instead of your project, they will make sure that it succeeds.

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Filed under buy-in, commitment, ownership