What Got Into Jack?



Jack, aged 13.5 jolted me out of deep thinking yesterday. I’d been thinking a lot about leadership and what some have called “the Great Humbling.” The Great Humbling is America’s experience of our crushing debt and lingering unemployment; the realization we can’t defend the entire world; the recognition that other world powers are rising. So, this week’s Newsweek – not yet out – offers an article entitled “Dead Suit Walking,” which asks: “Can manhood survive the lost decade?” They chronicle a major surge in unemployment among white males in New York that exceeds all other groups, including teenage girls. Their survey of long term laid off white men is harrowing. Yes, yes, poor white guys, I know:  They have it so bad. The point, though, is worth noting: the economy has changed, and no one – including white guys, can stand on pride or entitlement.

So, I was thinking about  “everyday leadership,” and what does this Great Humbling demand of us as bosses and parents and leaders? How do we respond? Just then Jack sat at the breakfast table and threw me a curve.

Jennifer and I have become very involved in his studies and work, pushing him to excel. We’re using tools like “Power School,” a software program that allows parents to view how their child is doing every single day, in every single class. Our inspections have had me worried that Jack’s going to get dependent on us, right when he should be going in the opposite direction. But, as in being a boss, you walk a fine line – watching very short term results, while building long-term capacity; expecting compliance, while hoping for commitment.

So Jack’s sitting across from me finishing a bowl of  Apple Jacks and says, “I’m going to do my homework.” Huh, that’s interesting. He starts in on his Spanish, as I start in on my email. He says, “By the way, here’s my planner from the last week if you want to see it.” He flashes two pages, filled in for every class. “That’s a flip,” I say. “You’ve never done that before.” He says, disbelievingly, “Never done my planner?” I say, “No, never offered it to me without me bugging you.” “Oh,” he says, “I guess that’s true.” I tell him, “That’s cool. Good work.”

He finishes his Spanish, proudly showing two pages, completely filled out. “I’m going to do my vacuuming now.” he says. I’m thinking:  Where did my son go, and who is this kid?  All day I wondered what had happened, and at dinner I asked if he knew why he was so self-driven today? He said, “I just wanted to get my work out of the way.”  “But why?” I asked, three different ways, trying to peel the onion of his conscious and unconscious thoughts.  He and Jennifer both laughed at my insatiable need-to-know.  He said he just didn’t want stuff hanging over his head all day.

I could offer lots of hypotheses for what had moved Jack on this day: biochemical changes like those that have shot him past me in height; feeling competence in sports; something he read; a great day spent with his dad (cuz it’s always about me  🙂 or his mom’s consistent pushing.  Although I can’t know, I have one abiding suspicion:  We have repeatedly expressed a vision of his being responsible and taking  initiative.

I suspect that initiative is the strongest leadership prescription as we move from the Great Humbling.  Our recovery and reinvention will come as we realize we can’t count on big companies, big government, big labor any more. As parents it means we need to help our kids – of whatever age – realize that it’s all about initiative. And with our employees we need to figure out ways to communicate that we don’t just need their participation but need their leadership.

There is little that is more inspiring than to observe people recover from humbling, show independence and step up.  Spurring independence is one of the greatest rewards when you

Lead with your best self!