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Leading with Character: Let Go and Watch Them Grow

I believe one can learn more through in-person experience than by using a text book in a classroom. That’s why I love to travel. For the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to enhance my cultural awareness on a trip to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Institute for the National Security of America (JINSA).

The attendees were a small group of retired flag and general officers (admirals and generals, which are equivalent to senior executives). The intent of the program is to deepen understanding of the security challenges in the Middle East that threaten Israel and, as evidenced by the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the United States.

Strength and Resilience
One of my top takeaways from the visit was the impressive strength and resilience of the Israeli people. Most Israeli citizens, both men and women, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) upon graduating from high school. Many serve the standard two-year term of service while others specialize and enter fields that provide training and education and come with a longer service obligation. This shared sense of purpose seems to unite and strengthen the Israeli people.

During our visit, we met many IDF soldiers as young as 18. To a person, they were professional, proficient, and polite. They seemed independent and mature. They’re given significant responsibility at a young age, and they comport themselves in a mature manner that belies their youth. What I witnessed was an example of empowerment through letting go. There was no evidence of helicopter parenting, nor supervisor micromanagement. The young soldiers were well trained, and trusted to perform their duties. I sensed high morale with soldiers seemingly upbeat and positive about their future.

A Lesson from the Olive Grove
During our trip we interrupted business for a couple of days to visit the holy sites and experience the local customs and culture. The olive tree is the national tree of Israel and it symbolizes many things, including peace and longevity. Olive trees can live to be over 1,000 years old, and they continually reproduce new shoots from their roots.

Our tour guide, Tali, invited us to experience her husband, Moti’s olive orchard. When we arrived, Moti greeted us in the large grove between rows of sturdy, strong olive trees. The soil was rocky and dry, yet the tree branches were heavy laden with green olives slowly ripening in the hot sun. Tali and Moti served us fresh-baked, chewy, and soft challah bread which we dipped into the rich olive oil with gusto. Never had olive oil tasted so sweet and clean on my tongue!

While we learned about olive farming, Moti told us a story that helped us understand the strength and resilience of the Israel people from another perspective. Olives are harvested by hand, by workers who climb ladders to reach the branches. While up on the ladders, the women leave their babies on the ground in the same crude baskets used to collect the olives. One day, Moti was walking through the grove and noticed a scorpion crawling on the cheek of a tiny baby. He let the mother, who was up on the ladder, know. She asked him, “Is the scorpion black or yellow?” If it was black, she would come down to remove it because it was the more poisonous kind. But when told it was yellow, she replied, “I’m not coming down off this ladder.”

Time to Let Go
What a lesson! I thought back to my experiences serving as commanding officer of the US Coast Guard’s boot camp in Cape May, NJ. There, I witnessed young people who left homes where they had perhaps been shielded by overly-protective parents. Many of those recruits were thirsting to be empowered to face challenges that had been denied them, and to explore whether they had what it takes to succeed as an individual, and more powerfully, as a team. At boot camp, the company commanders (drill sergeants) stood by when the recruits encountered the yellow scorpions. They were allowed to be stung by their mistakes and failures, and those encounters only made them stronger so they’d be able to successfully face the black scorpions they’d surely encounter performing the US Coast Guard’s dangerous missions.

Leaders, like parents, need to empower their subordinates—let them face the challenges and encourage them to seize the opportunities—despite the inherent risks. Look to see if the proverbial scorpion is black or yellow before “coming down from the ladder” to intervene. Our children, and our subordinates, will never achieve their full potential if they’re kept safe in a risk-free environment. It’s time to empower those we care about by letting them go and then watching them grow.

Look in the mirror. Are you a leader who stands back and gives your subordinates the maneuvering room they need to express themselves, to innovate, to discover new and better ways to do business?

Please join me again in two weeks for more on Leading with Character.

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