Lesson Learned

I’d like to say I mulled over the problem for a few days before taking decisive action. But the truth is simpler than that. I was irritated. No. More than that, I was mad. This just wasn’t right, and I knew it. I stood up and said, “There’s only one thing to do. I’m going to make Chris my special assistant.” A couple of mouths dropped open and before anyone could say a word, I left, went up to the pool and found Chris who was siting by himself at the edge of the shallow end, his feet dangling in the water. I said, “Chris, I need your help.” The little boy’s face went from confusion to an understanding of what I’d just said and then the smile I hadn’t seen in weeks crossed his face. He quickly got to his feet and followed me as I strode to the lifeguard chair.

Chuck, a rather stoic but amiable guy who would be leaving for his first semester of college that fall, was on duty, sitting in the tall lifeguard stand, overlooking the pool and twirling his whistle. I made no announcement but simply took the PH testing equipment and started to explain to Chris that one of the most important duties for myself and the lifeguards was to take hourly samples to be sure the pool’s water was acidic enough to keep the water clean but not so acidic that it hurt people’s eyes. Chuck looked down from the stand and calmly asked what was going on. In a louder-than-normal voice so that any kids around might hear, I said, “Chris is my new special assistant. He’s going to help you, all the lifeguards, and me. And we’re starting with testing the water. You tell Chris the readings you get each hour and he’ll write them down for you in the official logbook. Got it?”Chuck’s face slowly morphed to a grin; he got it.

For the next couple of weeks, Chris followed me around like an eager puppy. In truth, I had very little he could do. But his demeanor had changed. He walked a little taller; with the purpose of someone who has work to do. All the other kids took notice. And a couple of them — in voices that betrayed their envy — asked if they could be special assistants. No, I told them, there’s only one special assistant and that’s Chris.

Immediately the arguments stopped. After a week, I left him off his duties, as he didn’t need my acceptance to show anyone that he was good enough for them. His sweet smile and winning personality did the rest. By the end of that summer, Chris had become one of the most popular kids at the most exclusive swim club on Staten Island.

When Chris had first arrived, nobody had mentioned the port-wine stain on his face; no one wanted to be rude or mean spirited. But there it was; he was all of 10 years old and people’s fear of not knowing how to acknowledge his difference made him an undeserving outcast. At 10 years of age, what had he done? Nothing. It was a self-prophesizing fear of an otherwise decent group of children and young adults. What had become apparent to me was that this fear was going to turn him into an angry and very unhappy person. And maybe not for just that summer, but perhaps for a long, long time. The children were better than that. My lifeguards were better than that. And so was I.

That summer I learned some lessons I wasn’t even seeking. I learned about leadership and the power to change people. I had thought that leadership required a loud booming voice and a magic ability to get people to do what you tell them. What I found out is that the old axiom, actions speak louder than words, is true; that we can lead by example and change people’s minds in extraordinary ways. I didn’t have to scream, and I didn’t have to express my anger to make a change. In fact, I think those tactics would have failed miserably. In effect, all I did was say, I like this kid; the mark on his face doesn’t matter to me, I like him as a person. I took a stand. That’s all it was.

The marketing genius Seth Godin wrote, “We don’t change markets, or populations, we change people, one person at a time, at a human level. And often, that change comes from small acts that move us, not from grand pronouncements.”

Lesson learned.


This entry was posted on Monday, June 23rd, 2014 at 11:11 am and is filed under Observations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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