One of the most important elements of leading with character is learning to lead oneself. At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets, or students, are first taught the principles of “leading self.” That includes discovering more about who they are, reflecting on their core values, and learning how to work together with others. Some might think learning to lead oneself pertains only to entry-level leadership. Yet I found that by learning from experience and actively applying those lessons I continued to mature more as a leader every day, even as a senior executive. And you can, too.
It takes an element of humility to admit that there’s more to learn, and to be receptive to finding growth opportunities in ordinary tasks and activities. My husband and I moved to Falmouth, Massachusetts, a few months ago, and I was excited to finally be settling into our cozy home.
During my 40 years in uniform with the Coast Guard, including 12 years at sea and over 20 moves, there hadn’t been much “life” in the work-life balance equation. I loved my job, but there just wasn’t time for both work and life. I deferred a lot of fun activities I’d like to have done, but kept motivated by placing them on my post-retirement bucket list. I had great expectations, thinking that one day, when I retired, I’d have time to make up for all I had put aside. But it didn’t quite work out like I expected.
The Risk of Deferring Until Tomorrow
Almost 30 years ago, on the spur of the moment, I stopped to browse a yard sale. There sat a prize, waiting just for me. An old-fashioned Sears & Roebuck hand-crank ice cream maker. One of those that require ice and rock salt and lots of arm power. Friends, family, and colleagues know I love ice cream. Particularly home-made ice cream. When I go to a parlor, I always ask if they churn their own ice cream. The answer is almost always “no.”
I paid my $5.00 and brought that ice cream maker home. But given the demands of my job, at sea and ashore, there was no time to indulge in idle pastimes. Churning ice cream went onto my retirement bucket list. The ice cream maker moved with me all those years, unused. Every time I pulled it out to move it yet again I told myself, “When I retire, I’ll break out this machine on a hot summer day, and have fun churning the best ice cream anyone has ever tasted!”
Well, that day finally arrived last weekend. I told my family I was hosting a barbecue and would serve up a surprise dessert – hand-churned ice cream! I was so excited. I just knew this experience I’d been eagerly anticipating for all these years was going to live up to my high expectations. I searched for and found the ice cream machine. I carefully read the instructions. I spent a small fortune purchasing all the ingredients.
I lugged the 20-pound bags of ice out to the porch, layered the ice and rock salt, poured the cream, sugar, and fresh peaches into the churn, and started turning. And turning, and turning. It was a lot of work. I cranked with my right hand until it wore out. Then with my left. Back to my right. Again to my left. It was like trimming sails with a grinder winch while beating to windward. Finally, after about half an hour, the mixture had solidified and turned into ice cream. I set the treasure aside, and covered it in towels to cure. I just knew this ice cream was going to be worth all the effort. Heck, the instruction book promised it would be!
Learning to Live in the Moment
When the time came for the great “reveal,” I struggled to get the mixture out of the churn. The ice cream on top was a bit too soft, and at the bottom a bit too frozen. It gooped out of the churn and into the bowls, leaving puddles all over the counter. Despite the inauspicious start, I proudly served up the treat. My family dug in with high expectations. There was silence for a few moments. Then my mother offered with restraint, “It tastes milky, like cream.” My husband piled on by declaring that it tasted like yogurt. I, the ice cream connoisseur, had to admit it missed the mark. Sadly, it couldn’t compete with the local Dairy Queen! We all had a good laugh, but I was disappointed.
Later, while talking with my husband I remarked, “You know, I spent 30 years dreaming about this ice cream maker and how happy it would make me, but it didn’t.” I realized you can’t bucket something today and expect it to become a magical moment years later. It’s just not going to meet the great expectations you’ve conjured up over the years. Rather, you should try to live more in the moment, enjoying life day-by-day. Just as it’s unhealthy to dwell too much on the past, it’s unhealthy to have unrealistic expectations for the future. Treasuring where we are on life’s journey helps us manage our expectations and enjoy our work and life to its fullest.
The story of the ice cream churn was a learning experience that came late in life for me, and I wish it had come sooner. Leaders should strive early on to be content with where they are. To make time for activities that give them and their families satisfaction and pleasure. Doing so will help leaders live better lives, and in turn those leaders will positively model the way to help their people live life to its fullest. It’s a virtuous cycle of learning how to live well.
Look in the mirror. Are you setting a good example for your people by making time today to do something special instead of deferring everything to the future? Are you encouraging them and providing them opportunities to do the same? Are you all living well?
Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.
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