My Dad was discharged from the Army by 1946 and returned from Germany to reunite with my Mom and resume ranching. Two years later they had me.
Ranching never really slows down but during the winters he found time each week to head 20 miles from our ancestral ranch in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho up into Targhee National Forest to snow ski at Bear Gulch.
He continued to ski into his 70s.
Bear Gulch is long gone now, but in 1938 when my Dad was in high school and just two years after the creation of Sun Valley, it became Idaho’s second ski area.
While I was growing up, there were remnants of one of two old chair lifts there, which had been two big, 5’ x 16’ flat-bottomed sleds that together carried up to 14 skiers seated side-ways.
Very cool but by the time I was coming up “the Bear” only had a T-bar and a Rope Tow, at least until I was in high school. When I was 10 years old, a day pass cost $2.50 and a full season no more than a good steak dinner does now.
By the time I was two or three years of age, so I am told, I began appealing to him to take me along. So the winter after I turned 4 years old he insisted that if I was to go I had to learn to snowplow first.
Late one afternoon, after we had used a huge, horse-drawn sleigh to take feed out to our cattle, Dad took me to the steep hill that abruptly rose across Sand Creek just behind our horse barn.
Across a narrow gully, I could see the Ora Cemetery where many of my ancestors are buried, an inhold-commons carved out and given by my great-grandparents to the county.
Until well after dark, I remember marching repeatedly up that hill, skis and poles bundled in my arms, and then repeatedly trying to learn to snowplow down to the bottom.
It didn’t go very well.
My Dad, who was still in his 20s at the time, only knew one reaction to a range of emotions, whether fear, sadness, frustration, or anger.
And that was intensity.
My mom, who was not yet 25 years old, was furious that night when we finally stomped the snow off our boots on the back porch after that first lesson out behind the barn.
Both parents had good reason to try and breathe fire into me. Food allergies after birth had meant moths of projectile vomit and crying. Doctors feared my condition was failure to thrive.
I weighed less than I did when I was born a healthy 8+ pounds, when during a vicious snowstorm, my parents couldn’t find my formula and soon discovered that whole milk agreed with me.
But I am sure the trauma of those first six months lingered and may have led them to become intense whenever it came to teaching me to work through challenges.
My youngest sister, who came along when I was six, still kids me that as she was growing up, I would often put her through the lessons I had learned in R.M. Bowman boot camp (smile.)
This may be one of the reasons my middle sister retreated to her room so often when we were growing up.
The ability or willingness to work through challenges may have been my parent’s greatest gift to me, although I often gave them reason to worry well into my 20s.
It is one of the handful of skills known as “executive functions,” which act as an air traffic control system for others. They are crucial to learn by the time you are five or six and one of the hallmarks researchers have found that separate achievers from those who struggle or give up.
It is also one of the five attributes that Gallup, after more than 15 years of study, finds that distinguish those in the workforce who are more engaged from those who are less engaged:
- loyal to the organization
- willing to put forth discretionary effort
- willing to trust and cooperate with others
- willing to work through challenges
- willing to speak out about problems and offer constructive suggestions for improvements
Based on my four decades as a CEO and a few prior as a supervisor, it would be impossible to argue with this research or to rank them in any order. They are also very hard to teach to adults, although the organizations I led had some success inculcating the last attribute into our culture.
Working through challenges includes the ability to persevere through disappointments. My parents may have breathed a bit too much fire into me as a preschooler because one of the things I had to work hardest to hone during my career was how to convey disappointment to coworkers.
At my most proficient, I doubt I reached more than a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 but I did learn to hire a second who had that gift.
Throughout nearly my entire career, the consultants I found most useful to both me and the organizations I led were specialists in organizational behavior.
Dr. Wes Harper, then an RHR consultant based in Portland, was an organizational behavior psychologist we used during my 1980s stint in Alaska.
Then in my mid-30s, he gave me an invaluable insight: to be more aware of the impact I had on people in my presence.
Still striving as though I was that 4 year old going up and down that hill behind our barn, I was unaware that my incredible drive could be a two-edge sword.
Peter Bergman is a similar consultant whose writings I find enlightening, even in retirement. He posted on HBR.org this week that, “If you’re a high-performing, impatient leader, supporting others during tough times can be particularly hard for you to do.”
He continues, “It’s hard because your natural, knee-jerk response to underperformance is anger, directed at yourself and others.” Read the post, but his point is that while accountability is important, if these employees are high performers, “awareness and accountability aren’t their problems.
“What is? Regaining enough confidence to take necessary risks to succeed after failure.” When addressing “underperformance,” one of the four tips by Bergman, is to do what is important to any crucial conversation and “decide on the outcome you want” as well as the relationship going forward.
As tough as my Dad seemed through the eyes of a cold and wet 4-year-old on that makeshift ski hill, he and my Mom obviously also understood how to help me regain enough confidence to take the necessary risks to succeed after failure.
Unfortunately, 70% of adults at any stage in the workforce are simply disengaged, nearly 20% of whom are actively disengaged according to Gallup. This also applies to managers.
Good management can tweak engagement but it can’t overcome mindset. Even praise can cause someone with a “fixed” mindset to freeze up even more.
But the real answer is good parenting about two decades before they reach the workforce.
I never had the opportunity to be much of a parent but I sure had two incredible examples and I see one in my daughter. As a society, if we really want to instill those five Gallup attributes above, the point of intervention is not school, but in those first five years of parenting.
I was lucky.