Very Personal Positive Leadership

By Schon Beechler

One June 18, 2010, I returned home after directing two positive leadership programs at the University of Michigan where I worked with faculty to help executives understand core concepts of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) and the practical tools to implement them back in their workplaces. Upon arriving home, I was excited about the work that we had done, and the steps that the participants would take to create vibrant, positive workplaces. Little did I know that my ability to actually live these principles would be put to the test at home in less than a week.

The Family Crisis
On June 23rd my daughter, Jackie, her father and his girlfriend, my husband, Simon,  and I all watched proudly as Jackie “graduated” from middle school. As we all celebrated over dinner, Jackie asked if she could have some friends over downstairs the following day to celebrate the beginning of summer. We agreed; she had worked hard, her friends are good kids and all of them are in honors classes, like Jackie.

The following afternoon, a few teens arrived around 3:30, as Simon and I took a colleague who was visiting us to the grocery store to buy a few things for his kids before he returned to Nigeria, as well as some sodas and snacks for the teens. When we came home about an hour and a half later and opened the door we found a sea of teenagers and beer cans as far as the eye could see.

Simon and I froze for what felt like an eternity. Jackie knows that she is not allowed to drink and that none of her friends who have been drinking are allowed to come into our home. We had never seen any indication that she might disregard these rules, so we were not able to even comprehend what we were seeing. By the time we came to our senses, the kids had scattered out the front and back doors, getting a good head start on us. We finally came to and ran after them to try to intercept them as they scrambled to unlock their bikes. We caught up with some of the kids and lectured them on the dangers of their behavior. But some eluded us, including John, a close friend of Jackie’s, who staggered out shoeless and headed down the street.

Over the course of that evening we:

• Had Jackie clean the downstairs and then sit down with us to tell us what had happened
• We talked to Jackie about the dangers of what she had done and she claimed that

  • she was out getting pizza when the alcohol was delivered to the party,
  • she didn’t know who bought it or even that kids planned to drink,
  • she was so upset about the fact that the kids had alcohol, and her inability to stop the drinking, that she was in the bathroom throwing up right before we got home, and
  • she would never break our rules.

I desperately wanted to trust Jackie and believe her story and, at the same time, I was extremely angry and hurt. Above all, I was scared. Close to midnight we learned that John was in the hospital getting his stomach pumped and almost died of alcohol poisoning.

At this point, you might want to pause and reflect and ask yourself how you would handle this situation.

A Challenge
As Jackie and my husband cleaned up, I went to check in on my colleague, Chike, who observed the party break-up and John staggering out shoeless. I asked Chike what he would do if he were me. He opened up his wallet and pulled out a carefully folded and worn piece of paper with a picture of a handsome young man in traditional Nigerian dress. “This was my brother. He was a university student in Atlanta, so smart and full of hopes and dreams until the afternoon that a driver, high on dope, killed him in a head-on collision. If Jackie were one of my children, I would make sure that I turned this into a learning experience so that when she was old enough to drive, she would hopefully never get into a car drunk or stoned.”

His response struck me. Although I did not think about it in these terms at that time, Chike’s comment challenged me to live up to the standards set forth for the executives in our POS programs. In the moments that followed our unwelcome discovery at home, I was not framing this situation in terms of positive leadership—I was just wondering what to do with this crisis with my daughter!

One of the concepts we teach in the POS programs is “The Fundamental State of Leadership,” or “Lift.” (In fact, one of the reasons Ryan and Bob developed the term “Lift” to use in addition to the fundamental state of leadership is so that people would see the concepts as useful even when they were not in a position of formal leadership. I could have used that way of thinking that night but instead, I was reacting to a situation that I was emotionally unprepared for.) Lift is an uncommon psychological state which, if we experience it, helps us to exert a positive influence on the world around us. One way to experience lift is by asking the questions:

1. What result do I want to create?
2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
3. How do others feel about this situation?
4. What are three (or four or five) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation?

I did not walk through these questions in any formal or conscious way that night or during the following week. I simply found myself moving from being comfort-centered, focusing on staying firmly inside my comfort zone,  to results-centered, asking myself the question; “What result do I want to create”? I moved from being externally-directed, focused on what other people might think of me and how they would judge me, to being internally-directed,  using my core values as the points on my compass.  I also moved from being self-focused, putting my own ego at the center of my thoughts and actions, to being more externally focused on others, particularly my daughter and other teens in the community. Finally, I moved from being internally closed to being externally open to both the bigger context surrounding this crisis and to others’ ideas and perspectives. I made this shift through a process of inquiry, both within myself, and with trusted others. Very quickly, I moved out of my closed, judger mindset and into a learner mindset, trying to learn and move forward at the same time. In the words of Bob Quinn, I was “building the bridge as I walked on it.” Before you read how I did this, you may find it useful to ask yourself how you would answer the four Lift questions above if you were in my situation.

How Do Others Feel About This Situation?
I began (implicitly) with the third question, trying to understand how others felt about the situation. First, Simon and I talked with Jackie to understand what happened from her point of view. I then talked to Simon, my mother, and two very good friends the night of the incident . Over the next week, I continued to consult with family members, colleagues and professionals in the community in the days ahead to try to chart a path forward on a journey I felt woefully inadequate to take.

What Result Do I Want To Create?
As I entered into those conversations, hearing a variety of perspectives, I was forced to think deeply about the first Lift question: What result do I want to create? My initial answer was that I never wanted something like this to happen again and I wanted to be able to trust my daughter and ensure that she and her friends were safe. As I dug deeper inside myself, and as the conversations continued, I went from being concerned about Jackie and my ability to “control” her to trying to find the best path forward to help her and her friends make good decisions throughout their young adult lives.

What Strategies Can I Use to Accomplish My Purpose?
As my thinking evolved over the hours and days after the party, so did the range of possibilities to the fourth Lift question: What are three (or four or five) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation? I wish that I could say that I had the presence of mind to go through a logical, linear process like the one Lift describes. However, it was a process that cycled back and forth between questions, uncovering the subtleties and the complexities of the situation, and generating more clarity in the process of dealing with that complexity.

What Would My Story Be If I Were Living the Values I Expect of Others?
Interestingly, it wasn’t until about a week after the party that I really considered the second Lift question: What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others? Turning the mirror on myself, watching myself sip a beer as I lectured Jackie on teenage drinking, I realized that I was not always living up to the values that I expected in my own daughter.

The Rest of The Story
The morning after the party, Jackie continued to proclaim her innocence. Simon, who is less trusting (or naïve) than I am, insisted on seeing her text messages and the whole story began to unravel. She had, in fact, organized both the party and okayed the alcohol. The hard liquor was purchased for a $5 fee by a town vagrant for John, who was in the hospital, and the beer was provided by the older sister of another friend, Karen, using a doctored drivers license. Making decisions about appropriate punishment more complex, my daughter didn’t drink – she offered our house as a safer alternative to her friends who had planned to drink on the beach and go swimming afterwards. That afternoon, armed with most of the facts, my husband and I met with Jackie, John, and Karen to talk about what had happened and what was next.

The Most Difficult Dilemma
One pressing concern I had was informing the other parents. When I spoke with my best friend and my mother immediately after the party, they both insisted that this was a critical step I needed to take and expressed surprise that I hadn’t already done so. Reluctantly, Jackie gave me all of the names of the kids at the party and I told the three teenagers that I was going to call the parents to let them know what had happened. Karen began to shake and cry and asked me not to do that. Jackie then pulled me aside and with great urgency told me that Karen’s parents beat her and her siblings, sometimes very badly. She also told me that three other kids at the party had parents who physically abused them. The father of one of the girls punched her in the face and broke her nose six months earlier when she had come home drunk.

Uneasily, I told the teens that I would not call their parents but that they had to complete a project on effective and ineffective teen decision making. I laid out the requirements that they had to do some online research on the topic and interview a number of individuals to get their perspectives. Over the next week, the kids called the local teen outreach center and interviewed two counselors who work with troubled teens, the police inspector and co-founder of  The Coalition to Prevent Teenage Drinking, an emergency room nurse, two positive peer role models, two other positive role models, and one person whose life had been changed by their, or a family member’s use of alcohol or drugs. A good friend of mine agreed to come out and meet with us to talk about his brother’s tragic drug overdose and the lasting emotional scars it had left on my friend and his older sister, both of whom had tried for years to help him.

In the meantime, on the advice of my best friend who has older children, I continued to defer an answer to Jackie’s questions about punishment until we could all meet with a psychologist to understand what would be most productive and fair. Slowly, and through many, many conversations with the psychologist and our confidants, Simon, Jackie’s father, and I charted a path forward to both punish Jackie’s behavior but also to give her opportunities to help us rebuild our trust in her. These conversations also made me realize that Jackie really cares about her friends and was willing to risk getting into trouble to try to keep them safe. This is common ground that we can build on as we navigate the years ahead.

You might want to stop for a moment and reflect on how you are reacting and feeling about this story. What’s your reaction? How are you feeling? Why?

Turning A Near Tragedy Into A Learning Opportunity
After the interviews, I asked Jackie, Karen and John to synthesize their key lessons and put them together in a way so that other teens could benefit from them. They put together and rehearsed their PowerPoint presentation, complete with lessons learned and compelling stories from their interviews, information on how the human brain continues to develop until age 25 and the permanent damage that alcohol causes, and presented it to the seventeen kids who had been at the party on a Wednesday afternoon in our living room. Despite their deep embarrassment, all of the teens showed up.

In the uneasy quiet after the presentation, I told the assembled teenagers that my most important motivation was to try to help keep them safe. I talked of my struggle with the decision not to call their parents and also let them know that the only reason I didn’t was because I would knowingly be putting some of them in harm’s way. Jackie told me later, that on their way out, her friends whispered to her, “You know, your mom is right.”

In the following days, I followed up with a number of community officials and visited the local liquor stores, showing them a photo of the vagrant who had procured the hard alcohol for John, and telling them about John’s brush with death. During this time, I felt anxious and unsure of myself, but also calmer as I decided to take an active role in trying to control access to alcohol for teens. However, I continued to sit uneasily with my decision not to call the other parents.  I talked it over with Simon, my best friends, my mother, and a close colleague whose consulting practice focuses on values and decision making, and none of us thought I could have done anything different – it was the “least bad” solution. A week later, as I continued to struggle with my decision despite the assurances of those around me, I found another path forward. I summarized everything that I had learned and, without discussing the specifics of the incident or who was involved, sent an email out to all members of the middle school PTA, copying the principal and teachers. Jackie was not happy with my actions, particularly because I had spilled the beans on where and when the teenagers drink and how they procure alcohol, but for me, I felt like it was something that I needed to do. It was the only way that I could truly live my values in a way that I was asking other people to do.

It seems that the email “went viral” and was forwarded on to the PTA at the high school, as well as a number of parents at the parochial schools in our community. One middle school teacher responded with a heart-felt thank you and told me that she has a daughter just going into 8th grade. She confided that she is personally struggling with how to handle the complex challenges facing all parents of teens and asked me to help her start a parents’ support group at the middle school. We are meeting in early September to get started.

My daughter continues to be embarrassed by my actions and keeps telling me that this problem is too big – underage drinking is a problem everywhere and there is nothing that I can do. However, I remain resolute in my belief that if I can continue to find the courage to push myself from being comfort-centered, externally-directed, self-focused, and internally closed to being purpose-centered, internally-directed, other-focused, and externally open, I might really be able to make a difference, not just for executives in a classroom, but for my daughter, my family, our community, and myself. That’s my goal, and, at the same time, I have to admit that I have no idea how I might be able to succeed where so many others have failed. I do know that “it will take a village” to get our kids safely through their teenage years. Later this month I meet with the members of The Coalition To Prevent Teenage Drinking  to explore the possibilities of how we can work together to build the bridge as we walk on it.