On a Personal Note: The Eraser (part three)

Image Fifteen years ago, roughly one month prior to the giving of “The Pen.” I took my daughters to a basketball game at the college. Things were great for a while but as the night went on, my five-year-old began to fade, and she faded fast. Sleepy, cranky, and downright irritable, something had to be done quickly. My daughter was weary too. Soon, I gave in and bought her a Coke (a terrible thing parents never admit to, but fully appreciate its value as a narcotic for a youngster who can’t yet go to sleep). Anyway, during the rage in the stands, someone took a picture.

This priceless picture captures my daughter with tears in her eyes, me behind her with fire in mine, and a badge that hung around her neck with white yarn.

You see, what I had failed to notice the entire evening I was fighting with her, and exacerbated by her childish behavior, was the badge that she had made in class that day. She had been wearing it all night. It was a laminated drawing of a red balloon with the words “I did my Best Today.”

She did. I didn’t.

A few months later, in February, she was visiting my office and noticed the framed picture on my shelf where I can see it everyday. When she saw the controlled smile on my face as I recalled the evening for her, she could tell that it was true a treasure to me. Wanting to trade one memory for another, she reached into her coat pocket. “Here Daddy,” she held out her hand for me to take something. As I held out my hand, palm upward, she delicately released a small heart-shaped eraser that she had brought me from school. While the precious valentine gift was meaningful, her words were priceless.

“This is just in case you make any mistakes.”

In case?

I need so many erasers.

Kayla’s genuine gift from that day sits inside a small two-inch high trophy (with the inscription: “Father of the Year”) that she gave to me the following Father’s Day. Both are next to the picture. The Eraser absolved me of that night at the basketball game, for being so impatient and intolerant. I will still need to apologize and ask for forgiveness however, but as long as I have the eraser, I have the understanding from a child that it’s OK to make mistakes.

Someone always has a heart-shaped eraser.

I hope it’s me next time.

On a Personal Note: The Pen (part two)

penTHE PEN

One of the rituals I enjoy most is the daily entry of my journal each evening. Knowing that I have to conclude the day with some sort of magical insight and profound discovery forces me to live the day with my eyes and ears wide open. (Admittedly, some days do go by with no real impact, as revealed by reading the dull entry from the night before: “I watched TV most of the night tonight…” Things like that.)

The most meaningful element of the ritual, however, is the pen with which each entry is made.

It is the pen that I gave as a gift to my ex-wife, our last Christmas together. She had evidently tossed it into the “junk drawer” of the kitchen and the girls eventually claimed it one night while doing their homework. When the ink ran out, they too discarded it. They tossed it into their toy-box (the “pre-trashcan” for boring and broken toys) where I eventually recovered it, five years later.

At first I was hurt, but then decided to make the most of it and cleaned up my discarded and rejected gift. I replenished it with ink – the old-fashioned blue ink I remember my father using in his turquoise-colored resin fountain pen. I placed it intentionally next to my extra pair of reading glasses which sit on top of my journal.

To me the Pen, like the valise, is a symbol of something rejected but rediscovered. Something that is appreciated and admired for its present contribution, but more importantly for its propensity to be useful when no one else seemed to have use for it. The pen can be made to write anything that can be imagined. It has no limits, no restraints, and no apprehensions.

It has only the capacity to write.

When I think of my pen (yes, I consider it mine now) I am inspired by it. It is writing in a different book now. It’s the same story, but this volume is the second act. Built on the first, this one is where the true Character is revealed. It is where truth is discovered and happy endings are separated by several smaller tragedies. Sure the pen needs replenished once in a while, but it will last for a long time, writing wonderful and marvelous things.

Next Week: The Eraser

On a Personal Note: The Valise Trilogy (part one)

valiseEveryone has a few things that have special meaning. They are the things that, when given the hypothetical “house-fire” question at a party, are revealed as the most valuable. No one is ever surprised (in fact we all seem to take great pride in the fact) that we will usually forgo money and jewelry, and rescue the more sentimental items such as photo albums, Bibles, and heirlooms.

I am no exception.

There are three items that, to me, are priceless. They are all related in a way; a briefcase, a pen, and an eraser. While it may appear at first glance that I merely love office supplies, it is more personal than that. To me, they each represent three things; second chances, rediscovery, and forgiveness. As I share these treasures with you, I hope you can understand and appreciate all of the personal details, feelings and emotions that I do not share, but that are experienced throughout the stories.

THE VALISE

Not long after my 40th birthday, I decided I needed a purse. I had enough pockets for my cell phone and wallet, but now that I had to carry reading glasses with me everywhere, I had exceeded the “maximum pocket load” of most clothing articles. Not quite that in touch with my feminine side, I settled on the idea of a valise, a thin portfolio type of soft briefcase that zips on the top. It is thin enough to be practical yet still appears manly – for a purse anyway.

So I set out on my journey to find the perfect valise. After a couple of weeks with no success, I decided that what I was really looking for was one with a history, one with character that told a story, a story that I could make up from time to time to satisfy my own curiosity. While I won’t go into the details about the others, I will tell of the one I discovered.

After searching through several antique shops, consignment and thrift stores, I had almost given up and was resolved, if you can believe it, to return to the mall and purchase the very sterile, yet functional one I had seen several days earlier. But, as fate would have it, I decided to take a drive down to the marina for a stroll (as I often do). On my way home, I wandered into a thrift store in San Juan Capistrano. As I darted for the back left corner (that’s where all the luggage is stashed in those places), I began to sense discovery. I immediately removed all of the garment bags and old travel cases from the shelf and there it was, the very last piece on the bottom. I picked it up and said aloud; “Well, hello old friend.” It had a round orange sticker at the corner with “1.98” written in blue ink. I presumed that this was the price, but wasn’t sure since the valise was made of real leather and had a perfectly smooth running zipper. The leather tag on the inside indicated that it had been made in Brazil.

What a steal this would be at two dollars. When I got to the cash register, the woman behind the counter announced the total. “That will be ninety nine cents.”

“But the tag says $1.98.” I didn’t really know what else to say.

“Everything is half off.”

I had to keep trying to complicate things. “Sales tax?”

“There isn’t any.” She explained. “This is considered a donation.”

“So really, this case is free and I am simply making a suggested donation to your charity” I just had to have the facts straight after all. She sort of nodded and was obviously becoming annoyed. So I left.

I carried my newly discovered valise out to my jeep with such excitement, I amused myself. I laid it on the seat next to me and kept staring at it as I drove, smiling with a goofy ear to ear grin like I had just recovered a lost childhood toy.

The next day, I recorded the event in my journal.

Yesterday I went to a thrift store where I bought an old leather briefcase that I absolutely love. It cost a dollar. In near perfect condition, it shows only wear. I want to use it for a couple of reasons. One, it’s the perfect size for the few things I always seem to need. The second reason is more significant. To me the valise represents second chances. I look at and wonder who carried it before? What was his job that was so important? What valuables were held in it before? Who knows? All I know is that is has been found by someone who values it for much more than it cost.

Now, it will have purpose, meaning, and usefulness again. And, it will be valued. It may have been of little value to the previous owner (after all, he did give it away). It may have been used very little (it appears that way). For whatever reason the previous owner gave it up, I have found it now. It, like me, too has a second half to live. A second chance, so to speak. We will both do fine.

Next Week: The Pen…

So What? Leaders Make a Difference

So WhatA few years ago I was meeting with someone for the first time. We got off to a bumpy start with my first question.

“OK, so you consider yourself a leader. What does that mean?”

He told me that he was “in charge.”

“In charge of what?”

“My company.” He was frowning now. He had no idea that things were just going to get worse.

“Yeah? What does that mean? You walk into the office building and your company does what?”

He began talking about how people would jump when he gave them orders. He described the resulting bustle of activity that was his ultimate charge. When I continued to inquire as to what he actually did all day long, he began to tell me about the meetings with “his” people.

“Oh, you’re in charge of the people,” I concluded.

“Yes, I suppose I am” He smiled at the simple reality of his power.

I thought for a minute. “So what?” He stopped smiling.

We continued to explore what leadership actually meant for this man. The breakthrough finally came when I asked this simple two part question. “Where are you leading these people, and why?”

After a lengthy and good-spirited banter, I pushed my point.  Leadership doesn’t mean a thing unless it is tied to a cause. Leadership is not an achievement. It is an instrument. It is a tool for making change happen.

Simply, being “in charge” isn’t leadership. It’s an ego trip. When that is how we see leadership, we are mostly concerned with our own self gratification through exerting power over others. We are in charge. We are in control. We are on top. We are important. We are better.

We are mistaken.

Leadership is not merely about communication, influence, supervision, or power. Leadership is primarily about passion.

Sure all of those other things are part of leadership, but I am most concerned with people’s passionate dedication to making a difference. I have said it many times in class (and to basically anybody who will look me in the eye). “Leadership is not an end in itself. It is merely the means to an end. Where you lead people and why – now that’s worth talking about.”

Most of the best leaders I know, don’t really care if people are following them or not. They are not preoccupied with who is behind them. They are intensely focused on what is in front of them. Leadership is a role most passionate change agents end up assuming rather reluctantly. Most of them don’t really want to be leaders. They just want to make a difference. Being a leader merely comes with the territory.

I recently watched Gandhi again and was reminded how true this is. I was moved by Gandhi’s reluctance to be an “official leader.” He understood that he would have actually had to give up power in order to become a public official. He didn’t want his ability to change the state of his milieu diminish by becoming a ‘leader.’ So, rather than becoming the Prime Minister of the burgeoning government, he chose to make a difference in a greater way. He chose to stay focused on his passion, correcting one injustice at a time.

Before we focus so much on the “hows” of leadership, I propose that we take a harder look at the “why’s”. Why do we want to lead? Where do we want to take people? What is the destination of our passionate journey? What is the cause to which we are committed?  I suggest three very simple steps for establishing true leadership.

1)      Commit to the cause.

It is the dedication to our purpose that will keep us going. People can be a source for energy. They can also be a depleater of it. In the end, it is our passion for making a difference that will get us out of bed on those tough mornings.

2)      Let others join the cause.

They will. If we are dedicated to a worthy cause and committed to making a positive change, people will want to be part of it. Even more importantly, they are the people we need. They are as committed to the cause as we are.

3)      Collaborate to better the cause.

Once we have people who have joined us because they are dedicated to the same cause, an intense momentum develops. At this point collaboration has less to do with conflict and almost everything to do with mission. If we are passionately dedicated to the same cause, we will be amazed at how little conflict actually arises. And when it does, we are equally committed to the outcome. We become partners in every since of the word.

As we contemplate how to become better leaders, let’s spend less time considering methods of influence, communication styles, and management techniques. Instead, focus intently on the burden God has placed in our hearts. What injustice do we see that must be corrected? What is broken that we simply have to fix? What haunts us in the middle of the night? These are the things that create leaders. These are the things that matter.

Years ago, I used to teach high school. On the back wall of my classroom, just under the clock, I pinned a sign that simply read “So What?” It was my constant reminder that I was responsible for students, not content. Everything I taught had to make a difference. My mission wasn’t to instruct young people, it was to inspire them. I wanted them to leave my classroom believing that they could make difference. I wanted them to leave my classroom believing that they had to make a difference.

Not much has changed in 30 years.

COURAGE: Fuel from the fire of failure

CatalinaJeepTourSeveral years ago, I was in Catalina with my family and heard two very similar stories with very different outcomes. Two men, both on the island, had set sail to Mexico. Both diverted to Avalon for repairs, and neither ever left.

One of the men, our tour guide, told his story of how he and his wife quickly fell in love with the island and decided never to leave. He worked hard to make a life in a place that is difficult to live, but after 12 years he still gets excited when he tells tourists about the island’s fascinating history.

The other man had another story. He complained that he was “stuck on the island” until he could make enough money to go back to the mainland, abandoning his dream of Mexico and escaping his captivity on Catalina.

“What’s stopping you?”

He sighed, “Oh I dunno, I guess I just can’t get it all together.” (He had been there nearly four years.)

He was defeated.

Two men had similar visions and encountered similar obstacles. One would flourish with a new dream. The other would flounder with a dead dream.

To whom do you relate?

Too quickly people accept a setback as total failure. While others see a setback as an impetus for innovation, revision, and reinvention. They don’t give in. They dive in. They discover both the opportunity and the courage to pursue it. They conquer fear to live a new dream. In short, they draw courage from the setback. Failure is the fire that fuels their courage.

Have you encountered an obstacle while pursuing a dream?

Might it be possible that your obstacle could actually help you dream something new?

Allow failure to be the fire that fuels your courage.

COURAGE is the will to do what we see needs to be done. Courage is the will to invest our lives in others without requiring a guaranteed return. Courage is the will to pay the cost of compassion. Courage is the discipline that makes dreams come true. Courage is hanging in there when it is much easier to hang back. Courage gives us the hope of transforming our own lives, of restoring the soul of America, of healing the wounds of the world, of humanizing the cities in which we live. Courage is doing what we can today, trusting in the God of tomorrow – for tomorrow. ~ Robert Raines