As a mother of a young child, I am constantly on alert. There are sounds that tell you if your child is in trouble, making trouble, or that silence that says “you better come look, because I’m getting into something I REALLY shouldn’t be.” As attentive as I tend to be, in order for my child to grow into an independent, contributing member of society, I can’t keep him as close as I would like all the time. I have to be willing to let him venture out, even if it means I keep an eye from a distance.
Last month, we were planning to go for a visit to Santa Claus at a local amusement park. The day started out rough – we go every year and the hours were changed this year. I didn’t realize it until we were all ready to go, so we improvised and decided to stop for a nice breakfast along the way to fill the time.
At the restaurant, after we finished our meal, I took my son to the restroom to get him changed. I had forgotten thermals and the weather meant he’d be miserable if we didn’t put him in layers. We stopped on the way to pick them up, so I helped him get the second layer on under his jeans and sweater.
When we finished, I took the opportunity to give him some independence. I “pitched” – sending him towards our booth about 8 feet away. My husband was expected to “catch” and I could see the booth and confirm he got there safely. My son had his chance to walk alone, but we were on either end of the path, making sure he made it there okay.
He didn’t. He was only about 6 feet away when a waitress carrying hot coffee turned around suddenly and bumped into him. She spilled scalding hot coffee all over his head and shoulders. I couldn’t understand what was happening at first – he was just walking and the next thing I know he’s screaming a scream that every parent dreads. He was seriously injured and immediately ran back to me.
I’m trying to get answers from the waitress…Why is my son wet? Why does he smell like coffee? Did he just get hot coffee spilled on him? All the while, we are trying to get his sweater and thermals off of him. His head and face were fine – just minor burns that looked like a sunburn. His chest, however, was a different story. The thermals kept the heat against his body and he had second degree burns.
We ran him out of the restaurant and made it to the ER in less than 10 minutes from the time the burn happened. We were very lucky. Other than a terrified child and horrified parents, he was just fine. He did better than we did. He couldn’t wait to change his own bandages and show off his injury to the kids at school and tell them his story.
Why do I share this? Though I identify as a type A overachiever, I try to give my teams – and my child – room to grow. Ultimately, I convince myself that I still have control without micromanaging. I can just step in to offer assistance if they get to a place where they cannot recover on their own. Why wouldn’t I believe this – it has proven true for 20 years. Until I became a parent and was faced with a hard dose of reality – any control I think I have is but an illusion.
On some level, I know this, but I operate in a great state of denial. I have to be able to function every day – and that requires a sense that I can affect a positive outcome as long as I pay attention and lend a hand when my team needs me. And if it’s safe enough, allowing them to make the mistake or fail because we have time to recover and still deliver our end results to the customer.
I can afford to let go of the reins, the control. But that is still being in control, right? I’ve decided to let it go. I’ve determined the risk is acceptable. I could still change my mind. I could still intervene. See how easy it is to convince yourself that you are in the driver’s seat?
I make decisions to the best of my ability given the current environment and my best anticipation of what could happen. I use experience and my gut to tell me when there’s an opportunity to give up the decision making and allow someone else the chance to take the wheel. All the while, there are so many factors at play – other people who have independent thought and can do the unexpected, mother nature, and any number of other elements I cannot control.
When my son was burned, I was gut-wrenching afraid for the first time in two decades. If I couldn’t keep him safe from 6 feet away, how could I help him get to adulthood? It hit me that I needed to stop taking my illusion of control for granted and value every minute I have. I’ll still let him walk those 8 feet on his own and be diligent from afar, but it will be with the humility of knowing I can’t always swing in and make things safe or better.
As a leader, this incident helped me realize the same thing about my teams…things can go wrong and I might not always get there in time. If I can’t think of a time when I didn’t, maybe I’m not sending them out there far enough and often enough on their own. Work and life can’t possibly be that predictable.
As leaders, we need to be willing to occasionally lose control completely – experience that impossible fear that comes with knowing our presence cannot make a positive difference in this moment – to master the fear instead of letting it master us. To know we can let our people go further and do more if we are not always close by with a safety net. Do we risk failure and injury? Yes. But nothing worth achieving in life is done without risk. Including living it.