Leadership Lessons on the Lake

“It is time for your solo, my friend”

Sept. 1, 2017   Allison, Ethan, and I visited Brian and Maria at their summer compound on Sebago Lake, up in Maine. Brian welcomed us in his summer uniform, shorts and T-shirt. He is a small man, densely muscled with pale blue eyes that miss nothing. I think of him as a hawk, circling over the landscape, sharp-eyed, vigilant, and comprehending. This particular hawk is also my friend, mentor, and employer. He sees things in me that others, including myself, have missed. Brian’s gift is his ability to then coax those things to the surface where they are put to good use. “Stretch and Challenge” is his simple mantra.

As a leader, Brian creates exacting standards and a clear vision. He is not going to overburden an individual with detailed instructions. We learn by doing. Brian is happy to provide the feedback that enhances the performance. The feedback is direct and incisive. It is not polished with kindly platitudes. This process is built on trust. Brian trusts that you bring a level of skill, care, and a drive to learn. You trust that Brian’s high standards matter. It is a simple formula that works.

Many lakes in Maine are long and narrow. Not Sebago. It is broad and can be indecipherable to a newcomer. Brian has been coming to this lake since childhood. He knows it well and is a wonderful guide. He took real delight in touring us around in his beautiful motorboat. At some point, he invited Ethan to steer. He also pointed out the throttle, suggested a course and stood aside. Stretch and challenge. Ethan was at the helm. He is sixteen but carries a bit of caution that is unusual for that age. It was not hard for him to run the mental calculus underlying this responsibility. But he is also a boy in control of three hundred horses. Jabbing the throttle forward, he stood the boat on its stern. Without the slightest alarm, Brian pointed out the nuances of trim. Learn by doing.

Over the next few days we led the lake-life. Ethan ran the Jet-Ski, Allison paddle-boarded, Maria chased after elusive sunshine, and Brian skirmished with a crew of ducks trying to establish residency. We also spent time on the boat with Ethan receiving more time at the helm. We all delighted in his delight.

Time was also allocated to planning my upcoming work year. Our work takes place on college campuses. A great deal of travel is involved. A day spent facilitating a leadership workshop is a long, tiring day. Off-days are not an option. Exacting standards are upheld. I lead a number of these programs and I consider this to be a sacred trust. I also know that I am physically declining and have no interest in being anything less than my very best. Accordingly, there is the calculus of rate of decline Vs. span of time. It is both unscientific and crucial. With all these considerations, a work plan is set. Brian made no inquiries regarding my capacity to deliver. He relied upon me for these calculations and trusted my self-assessment.

All trips to the lake regrettably end. As we fussed with our departure checklist, Brian gave Ethan the keys to his beautiful boat. “It is time for your solo, my friend”. We all watched as the boat became very small on the vast expanse of Sebago. I’ll admit to a bit of apprehension about Ethan finding his way back. Misplaced fear. Soon the boat grew larger as it headed back on its straight course. On the dock, hugs all around. This was an extraordinary experience for a sixteen-year-old who was turning around a tough year. Clearly a game-changing experience.

On the drive home I was considering Brian’s generosity. As usual, I am slow on the uptake. This was as much about me as Ethan. Without questioning my decline, Brian let me set the boundaries of my commitments. He also allowed for my usual willingness to over-extend. I have been part of this world long enough to know that I function best when stretched and challenged. Brian knows this as well. Like the hawk, he sees it all.

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