Eye of the Beholder


Son #3 wants to be a cat. Not the strangest part of my morning.

Son #2 wants to be an astronomer when he grows up. Not an astronaut. That’s not exciting enough.

Son #1 wants to be a bike rider.

Besides weeping for my future retirement, I want to focus on Son #2’s definition of excitement. Because I don’t know about you, but travelling 28,000 km/hr and floating around space seems pretty darn exciting to me. But maybe he thinks excitement is driving your own research forward as opposed to just running someone else’s experiments. Maybe excitement is the slow, methodical build of discovering something great. I’m not sure. All I know is that his definition of excitement isn’t quite the same as mine. That doesn’t make it wrong.

Our language has evolved into a rich pallet we can use to create our landscape, but what happens when our intended message isn’t received that way? How many times do we get frustrated with the lowly employee who needs to be told, again and again, how to do something?

Are we like a painter, where the meaning lies in the eye of the beholder? That would be chaos! Is the recipient responsible for trying to understand what we meant? Partially. Unfortunately, not all of us are Picasso and people are unlikely to spend hours contemplating the true meaning of our message. That means the rest lies with us.

Not everyone likes abstract paintings. Some prefer photography. Repeating the same message, “As I told you before…” is just hammering the same bent nail, only a little harder. We need to try different words, different media, and different approaches. We have to assume the fault lies with us which is awesome, because that means there is something we can do about it.

The meaning is in the eye of the beholder, after all. Good thing we aren’t tied to a single canvas.

As a side note, I spent ten minutes meowing like a cat with son #3. Not sure what I was communicating, but he seemed happy. It really is all about them. 🙂

I just hope I didn’t agree to by him a car.


Another Problem With Labels


Remember Son #3 – The Beheader of Marigolds and the Uninstaller of Shutters and Trampoline Safety Equipment? Yup. That’s him. Which brings me to another problem with labels that my sister pointed out to me.

They become self-fulfilling.

Which is great if you’ve been labeled a superstar, not so great if you’re called a troublemaker. Heartbreaking when others do it to us, but even more so when we do it to ourselves. For example:

I can’t start my own business, I’m a mother. I have three kids.

I can’t change things at my job, I’m just a worker.

I’m too old to learn this.

Let’s pick some new labels. In fact, let’s try on a new one each day. Today I’m going to be Graceful. (Don’t laugh). So, please share. What’s your self-inflicted label for today?


The Problem with Labels


Meet son#3. He’s also known as:

The Uprooter of Tulips
The Beheader of Marigolds
The Hallway Graffiti Artist
The Stacker of Toothbrushes Down the Drain
The Uninstaller of Shutters and Trampoline Safety Equipment

The problem with labels like these is that they don’t capture the mischievous glint in his eye before he attacks a soap bubble or the sweet and innocent way he says sorry after he’s dumped half a liter of water on the floor in his quest to study fluid dynamics. They in no way capture all the sweet and funny things he does, which mostly make up for the renovations required to our home.

To a certain extent, we need to use labels to help us quickly understand complex situations by categorizing all the information we receive, which, I suppose, is why all the “job hunting” gurus and resume experts advise that we should brand ourselves. A simple, clear and easy to understand statement of who we are. But I’m not a box of cereal and neither are you.

So who really suffers when we stick to labels? The labelers, of course.  The moment we have categorized something or someone, it limits the number of interactions we can associate with them, in turn, limiting our creativity. If we think the spoon is an eating utensil, we will only use it for eating. It’s also apparently really useful for digging up bulbs in the garden, playing the stock pot and removing drywall.

If I think son #3 is a troublemaker, I will only look out for the trouble he creates. I need to take a step back and deconvolute the label.

Son #3 is a troublemaker because he doesn’t listen to me. Son #3 doesn’t listen to me because he really, really, really wants to do what just popped in his head because he’s:

a) So curious he’s going to explode if he doesn’t
b) Determined the rewards outweigh the risks
c) Testing me to see if he can overthrow the current regime in this family

Which actually makes me think he’ll be a great entrepreneur in a few years and his curiosity and questioning of authority should actually be encouraged. Just like that, he’s transformed from troublemaker to possible retirement solution because I am so moving in with him when I’m old and senile. Revenge, circle of life, and all that.

We need to look at all the people we’ve categorized and labeled. They could end up becoming friends, or at the very least surprise us. And seeking out surprises is a great way to change our way of thinking and learn new things.

Safe and stagnant is boring.

Maybe I should buy son #3 a chemistry kit. He’ll like that. The “not for children under 3” warning is probably just another example of labeling designed to simplify our lives and stifle our creativity. Maybe. What the heck, the spare room is already missing some drywall, anyway.



Follow the Leader


So last week, I was in the car, heading to my parents’ house to drop off the baby. Another car cut me off and I may have sworn a tiny bit. I forgot I had an audience in the back seat.

Son#3: Shit!
Me: Oh no!
Son#3: Oh no! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me: *moment of panic* Sweetie…that’s not a nice word. You shouldn’t say it.
Son#3: Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me:  Wait! Nose! Where’s your nose?
Son#3: Nose, nose, nose, nose….
Me: *whew*

The joys of toddlerhood. Turns out they’re actually paying attention. Sadly, I didn’t learn my lesson. A few days later, I was trying to get out of a parking lot but because of construction and a poorly parked truck, I was blocked in. I may have cursed just a tiny bit more.

Son #3: Uck!
Me: Nooooo!
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I don’t suppose you’re saying truck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: *banging head on steering wheel*
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: What about duck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: Where’s your nose?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I think Mommy has to go sit in time-out.

This story illustrates how critical it is to lead by example. Whether you have a toddler or adults that look up to you, one of the quickest and easiest ways I’ve seen to lose all credibility as a leader (and parent) is to spout the nonsense, “Do as I say, not as I do”.

A remember a few years ago, when Son #1 was in grade one, he asked for a list of bad words he wasn’t allowed to say because he didn’t want to say one by accident and get in trouble for it. So that got us talking because, as seen above,  the occasional bad word has slipped past my filters and Son #1 wanted to know why he couldn’t swear. I tried the honest approach and told him it would make me look like a bad parent.

He laughed.

Then we came to a compromise. He can’t use a bad word unless he can tell me exactly what it means, why it’s inappropriate to use the word and what effect he’s trying to create by using it in that context. I will happily do the same, if he’s interested. It turns out that he’s not that interested and would rather play video games.

I have a hunch that the same approach isn’t going to work with Son #3.  I wonder if he’ll appreciate a discourse on the finer points of microeconomics while I drive, instead?

Authority comes from above–Leadership is granted from below


Seven-thirty every morning, I sit on the couch and watch Thomas the Tank Engine. I’m not a big fan, but as far as son #3 is concerned–well, TRAINS! The lesson a few mornings ago was that James didn’t like to be told what to do by a lowly freight car. James, after all, is an ENGINE. And, of course, James ended up in trouble because he didn’t listen. He then had to go back to the freight car for help in solving the problem.

As my mind wandered from the happy singing on TV, I got to thinking– that happens way too often. I’ve seen it countless times. A newly promoted manager with something to prove, that feels like they can’t afford to listen to their followers because that would threaten their authority. After all, why did they get promoted if they don’t have all the answers? Or, they feel the need to flex their authority-muscles to show everyone they’re in charge.

The problem is authority and leadership are two vastly different things.

An organization can give you authority to decide things. Followers have to give you permission to lead them. Sure, you can “force” people to do what you say. You can assign someone to sweep the floors or file the backlog of papers. But unless they buy in or have some other reason to try and please you, they will do the bare minimum necessary to keep their job. And if they’re only trying to please you to make a good impression? Eventually someone else will come along that they want to impress more. They will have no loyalty toward you or your team.

We usually gain authority in an organization for a variety of reasons: maybe we hold the right degree or accreditation, or maybe we were just really good at our previous job. Unfortunately, the traits that got us the promotion are rarely the traits that will make us great leaders. And while we can most certainly have leadership without authority, authority without leadership leads to very bad things.

Which brings me to my favorite quote on leadership from One Bullet Away, written by Nathaniel Fick:

” Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. The Marines allowed me to be their commander, and they could revoke their permission at any time.”

The Marine Corps gave Lt Fick the authority to command. But, he realized that unless he earned the respect, trust and loyalty of the men in his platoon, he would never actually be leading. If anyone is interested in the story, I highly recommend watching Generation Kill.  You can read the article it was originally based on  archived here.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the military (it’s just harder to find news articles about good or bad middle managers).

So how do we develop the traits that make us successful leaders? I think we need to switch our focus. I don’t think it was a coincidence that James was the engine that had trouble listening to the freight car. After all, he’s the one “that’s vain, but lots of fun“.

Getting promoted likely involved honing our own skills. Now we need to switch our focus so that we’re not just concerned with how well we’re doing, but rather how well the people in our team are doing. We have to value them as people and employees. We have to listen to them.

If James had been a little less focused on himself and actually believed that the freight car had a valuable opinion, then the show would have been disappointingly short for my toddler, but maybe a little less mind numbing for me.

Then again, I guess it’s not just about me.