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Variety & The Mind

Personal Leadership 

Posted on May 4, 2009 by Blake Leath

Sometimes the smallest, simplest things catch my attention.  I don't know why, but it intrigues me, as do the teensy lessons the things themselves reveal.

Last week, Lowe's delivered several pallets of mulch to our driveway.  Once the bags were emptied and spread, I began to wonder what we might make of the remaining wood from the pallets themselves.  Coincidentally, my wife, Dawn, had been talking about a "flower wagon" for our front porch for several days.

Though it took a while for the cogs to engage, eventually... klunk-kerplunk, eureka... Mother's Day is coming. 

She printed a photo from the internet, and bam -- I was off to the races.

From Friday evening through Sunday, I became a man possessed.  My aged and creaky body beneath me, I painstakingly broke down the eight pallets with a hammer, crowbar, pliers, and ripsaw.  Our family ran the errand to Lowe's and purchased chain, hinges, angle brackets, more screws, a second drill, and another saw blade.  Three days later, we have five wagon-bodies awaiting the arrival of their axles and wheels.  Upon completion, we'll distribute the wagons around the yard and load them up with flowers, grasses, watermelons, or pumpkins as the seasons dictate.  In time, and with age and weather, we think they'll work well.

But as I was bending, standing, hobbling around my sawhorses, experimenting, screwing up, starting over, measuring, re-measuring, marking, cutting, re-cutting, drilling, screwing, sanding, and spraying, my mind was free to drift and float.

On Saturday night as I did 'bedtime' with our six-year-old daughter, Lauren, we played a memory game.  She's working on her math and, as we wound-down for the evening, with all the lights off in the room, she said, "Let's play a numbers game.  I need to work on my math, okay?" 

Into the ink-black darkness I said, "Okay.  How many curtains are in your room?" 

Her mind whirred through the room and she said, "Five."

"Yes, five," I replied.  "That's right.  Good.  Okay.  How many doors do we have upstairs?  Downstairs?  Be sure to count the closets, attic, and doorways with no 'literal' doors, okay?  And how many gates do we have outside?"

In time, she gave me great numbers for every question.  She was right-on.  And then she said the coolest thing,

"Isn't it neat that while my body is here in bed, my mind is roaming the house and yard?"

Y e s    i t    i s

It is, literally, mindblowing.

And as my body and hair and eyelashes and shoelaces and fuzzy legs and arms became covered and more covered with fine sawdust, my mind traveled to Beijing and Paris and London and Toronto and Phoenix and Toledo and Orlando and to the movie and grocery stores down the street and the mall across town and that terrible O'Hare which always strands me.  It roamed to cars and planes and people and politics.  To religion and mailboxes and dogs and squirrels.  To the wind that blew and the rain that fell and nearly ruined my tools, to the neighborhood boys revving their engines and blaring their tunes, to birds and ants and leaky roofs and mosquitos, and to the meals I could smell through the windows and the shower I longed to take when I was finished each evening.

And like our precious Lauren, growing inch by inch and word by word, I thought to myself, "Isn't it neat that while my body is here, my mind can go anywhere."

Y e s    i t    i s

The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but too often, I see organizations and leaders who don't allow (much less expect... demand...) their people to hope and dream and think.  And we confine people, and their minds, to cubicles and repetition.

Henry Ford once lamented, a century ago, "Why, when all I need is a pair of hands, do I have to get a whole person?"  (Yes, people are complicated, but oversimplifying the workplace so people can solely be more effectively 'managed' borders on malpractice.)  Toyota, and countless companies defined by 'predictability,' have found ways to ensure job enrichment and variety.  Have you?  After all, though it is indeed complicating, you get much, much more from a person when you demand they also think creatively and constructively about your business.  And yes, sometimes the most constructive changes arise like a phoenix in the face of 'creative destruction,' not unlike Market Darwinism and what we are seeing in broad scale around the world today.  

(There is an anecdote that Bill Gates, Sr. tells about his then-adolescent son.  After repeatedly yelling up the stairs at Bill, Jr. to come down and get in the car, his exasperated mother inquires, "WHAT are you DOING?"  "I'm thinking, Mom.  Don't you ever do that, too?" he replied.  Later that evening, his mother and father admit to one another, "No.  We really don't take enough time anymore to just think.  Just think.")

And no, I am not advocating 'daydreaming,' but I am encouraging you -- as a leader -- to facilitate and foster an environment in which people can indeed imagine and think, wherein you allow their minds to explore new and heretofore uncontemplated opportunities.  As they do at W.L. Gore, we should consider allowing people 'dabble time.'  It's where Gore finds breathable plastics and 3M finds Post-Its.

And for all of us, including my daughter and me, it's where we find doors and freedom.