Leadership at the Lakeshore Redux


Finally you understand that the real motorcycle you’re working on is yourself

– Robert Prissing

An extended family, including two dads, spends a couple months each summer at the lake house next door.  The lake where our permanent home exists (we call it “our lake”) changes personalities from season to season.  While winters are beautifully quiet – almost desolate – summers are high energy days with visitors, renters, water sport lovers and dawn-to-dusk community activities.  This is Minnesota!  We have to take advantage of the short season for some outdoor fun.

The house next door is a year round rental.  The families who occupy it during June and July have been coming to it for many years.  We’ve watched their kids grow into now active adolescent water lovers.  On July 4th, there is always a bit of friendly competition between them and us for best shoreline fireworks display.  Forgive my bias, but my son always wins for our side.

A couple Saturdays back, I noticed the neighbors had a power boat problem.  As the youngsters stood expectantly by, waiting for turns to be pulled on skis and tubes, the two fathers struggled to get the motor started.  No luck.  Enough time passed to suggest the fault was fatal.  The dads retired to lawn chairs to discuss their options.  They took the boat out of the water and parked it in the back yard.   

I had planned to do some boat driving for our family and guests so I approached the two men and offered my services.

The conversation went like this:

I: I see you’ve got boat problems.  I’d be happy to pull the kids around behind my boat.

One of the dads:  We’ll think about it.

I (thinking the response was an upper Midwest way of saying, “We wouldn’t want to impose on you”):  Really, it’s no trouble. I’d love to do it.  I’m putting our boat in the water (it’s on a lift) just now anyway.

The other dad:  It’s up to the kids.

Neither dad made a move nor spoke a word to any of the now-disappointed youngsters who had moved on to other distractions.

 Without a word of thanks for my offer, the men stared out at the lake.  Our conversation, I concluded, was over.  I was pretty sure my offer had been rejected. It was a full day later, after the dads had acquired another boat, that the kids got back out on the water.

The experience got me thinking about family leadership.  I often look at life’s spontaneous vignettes as surprise visits to a learning laboratory. This particular laboratory moment offered an opportunity to observe family gridlock.  When an apparently painless temporary solution to the goal of providing fun and pleasure to their family members arose, the two family leaders simply shut down.  (I don’t think I have a reputation for being a neighbor to be avoided.  If I do, I hope someone clues me in.) Our past experiences with the families next door have been characterized by mutual friendliness and good over-the-lilac-bush mutual hospitality.  In this specific interaction with the dads, however, I saw body language telegraphing defeat, disappointment and even failure.  A barrier existed between their state of mind and accepting a way to move forward toward saving the afternoon. Had they been momentarily paralyzed by the realization that they couldn’t fix a mechanical problem? Were they too proud to accept a rescue from another guy?  It appeared they had succumbed to an emotional hijacking.  Their feelings of defeat about the boat that let them down, prevented them from seeing, then accepting, a solution which came with no strings or expectations attached.

When leaders of families or businesses get into gridlock, solutions to problems, which are often obvious, escape view.  This occurs when the ability to evaluate problems and seek optional solutions is blocked.  It’s hijacked by the emotions of the moment.  The result is often an erected barrier to creativity and imagination.  The two dads retired to lawn chairs once they locked up with the idea that there were no more immediate solutions available.  It is no surprise that once they assumed that physical and emotional posture, my offer couldn’t get through. 

This “blocked position” we often move into interferes with our capacity to see options and solutions.  If you find yourself in the metaphorical lawn chair, staring off into the distance, but then become aware of an approaching solution, get up, face the approaching entity and engage in conversation.  Allow that process, and the time it creates, to move you out of the blockage.  When you practice seeing what is available, you will find it easier to select a solution and move forward from any setback.

Peace and Courage,


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