I learned a powerful lesson yesterday in priorities and values. And in leadership. In investing in something and sharing something and caring for and protecting something that is important to me.
Like many people right now, money is tight in my family. This is a not new for us, we just ran into a tight spot this month and things are down to the wire. The lights will stay on, and the house will have heat, and there will be food on the table, but there will be precious little extra until payday rolls around. No different than millions of other people, even in the best of economic times. And, quite honestly, better off than many others who will slip through the cracks and fall just a little more behind this month until they cannot keep their heads above water any longer.
However, there were 3 different things that all took place in one day that had a large impact on me and form the basis of this post. First, my original reaction to how close things would get was one of anger, frustration, and hurt pride. I have been in the Army for 21 years, I have rank and position and a stature in the organization. I have responsibilities and obligations. Things that need get done and people who rely on me. My Army stature is part of my identity. A large part. And yet, I find myself now in a position that I see many Soldiers in. The wallet is a little light at the end of the month and there will have to be some juggling that goes on. The dollar amounts are larger, but the margins are still the same. Slim and none. I had been equalized and my pride didn't like it. How could this happen? How could I run two Division level programs and yet not be able to ensure the security of my family any past the next paycheck? Tough sort of spot to be in. Sort of a 'role of man' place to be. The idea of provider and caretaker. Something I do for my Soldiers every day. How then could I have not done it in my own life?
A friend of mine though asked me two simple questions that unraveled a lot of that. "What do I value?", and "What is enough?" In 7 words, she made me consider my position and look at my priorities. She turned the feeling of worry and inadequacy into one of power and strength in about 3 minutes by pointing out some compelling competing truths that I didn't want to see. My home is safe and secure. My daughter will eat a healthy meal and have clean, warm, dry clothes and a soft bed to sleep in tonight and play in a youth soccer league. We will not wonder where our next meal is coming from or where we will sleep tonight. In fact, beyond merely making it, we are actually a thriving and healthy family. We might not be financially secure, but we will have done the very best could this month, and will certainly make it until the next paycheck comes in.
Which drove home the question about figuring out what I value. Do I value amassing a ton of money and keeping up with the neighbors to see who can have the newest car or who is putting a pool in their yard, or rebuilding their deck? Or do I care about raising my daughter in a healthy and complete, and safe home? A home that protects and nurtures her? A home where she knows that she is loved and cared for? Sometimes choices have to be made. Right now, the choice has to be that my daughter is raised in a healthy and happy home. If there is budgeting to be done, then it will have to tilt in that favor.
The second event stems from the first. The realization that I was looking at my situation from one point of view and there was an equally powerful one available to me that I originally could not see, nor give any credence to. It was a powerful demonstration of how my emotions affect my behaviors and my views. It showed me in a real way that I have to learn to stop, recognize where my filters and point of view are affecting the outcome of something, and then actively look for another way to view the situation. In essence, the see a problem as either a problem, or an opportunity to check in with myself and reaffirm my values and priorities against my reality. I wasn't leading my family through a tough spot, I was allowing the tough spot to dictate how I would feel and then react. I wasn't separating myself from the emotion enough to see alternative solutions.
The final piece of this puzzle fell into play last night as my wife and I were putting our 4 year old to bed. Every night, part of our routine is to state what we are thankful for that day. We call it the Gratitudes. We all take a turn and it reminds us to be grateful and to keep looking on the bright side of things. Last night, my daughter told my wife and I that she was grateful to live in a house of love. She's 4! But the force of her words nearly buckled my knees. Everything else aside, a little girl, tired at the end of an adventuresome day, managed to help me keep my priorities straight and concentrate on what really matters. She told me all I needed to know. Broke or not, we have built what we needed to build. A family where a little girl feels loved and safe and happy and secure.
What does my little story have to do with leadership? A lot I think. It has to do with self-awareness, a recognition of the power of attitude, a constant evaluation of priorities and the values you lead by, and the impact expectations and roles can have on your thought process. Yesterday reminded me that my personal pride, and some vision of where I think I should be at this point in my life, was affecting my ability to actually lead my family out of our current financial location. My attitude, my hurt feelings and my sense of failed obligation were only going to continue a cycle of tension that would never actually confront and face the reality of my situation. I was contributing to it instead of seeing it honestly. I never considered for a second that what was really important would be brought to me by a 4 year old. I may be broke for the moment, but my daughter and wife are living in a house that is built solidly with its priorities in order. The rest, while important and needing to be addressed, are not critical. My family having a solid foundation of love and joy and well-being is.
It also reminded me that one's Values have to be constantly considered. What are they? Why do you hold them? What standard are you using to judge them good or bad? How do you make your choices and decisions about what's important to you and why? How do you set those priorities in motion in your organization - be it your family or your platoon? Most importantly, are they being done actively or passively - are they your choices, or are you simply accepting those of others by default? We live in a world where many many men define themselves and their personal worth by their profession and their paycheck. So much of their identity is comprised of what they do and their net worth. And that was the starting point for me yesterday. A passive acceptance of what the world says is important, not an active evaluation of whether that is the right answer for me and my family. I discovered that I had my priorities wrong and they weren't in line with my values. 7 words helped me see that.
You lead yourself first. You lead yourself by gaining self-awareness, figuring out what you value and why, and then aligning your priorities to support your Values. In the course of one day, I learned a lot about each of those things. I learned to see how little attention I was paying to the impact someone else's idea of what or where I should be at this point in my life. How I was passively following instead of actively checking. I spent some time affirming my values and those of my family. Making sure that we all understood clearly what really matters to us. What this family will ground itself in. What will define us as a group. Now my wife and I can get our priorities straightened out and begin to work collectively on supporting our values and our vision. All of which equals leadership, no matter how you cut it. And the only benchmark for success that matters is that a little girl grows up in a house where she feels loved and safe and secure. Because that is what I truly value. Now to get my priorities in order.
As always your thoughts and comments are welcome.