What I Learned from Skating on Thin Ice
On a sunny winter day when I was about 10 years old, my two sisters and I begged to go ice skating at a city rink in a back slew of the Mississippi River. Our mom drove us across town, helped us into our skates, and left us to entertain ourselves. There was a big crowd of people skating that day – an enchanting scene with couples skating arm-in-arm, kids zipping around playing tag, and parents teaching their children how to skate. I couldn’t wait to be part of the fun! As we started to circle the rink, I felt a little wobbly finding my “skating legs” and soon fell behind my sisters. Overwhelmed by the throng of people skating faster than me, I moved to the outer edge of the pond and was unaware that I’d wandered onto thin ice. Suddenly the ice gave out under me – the next thing I knew I was up to my armpits in water grasping the edge of the ice. My sister, Barb, who was two years younger, had seen me go through the ice and skated over to help. She inched toward me and tried to grab my hand, but the ice cracked under her skates as water covered her ankles. Fortunately, someone grabbed her and pulled her back. While a crowd gathered, a young man skated up – with one swift move, he yanked me out of the water, set me down on solid ice, and skated away. A kind woman took us to the Warming House and got us out of our wet snowsuits. She did her best to warm us up, then told her husband to drive us home.
Occasionally, I ponder … what if I had gone completely under and couldn’t find the opening in the ice … what if Barb had fallen through trying to help me … what if the brave, strong man had not ventured on the scene and taken swift action … what if the ice had broken under our hero as he tried to save us …
Thinking about these scary outcomes makes me shudder all these years later. But the magical parts of this story are also embedded in my psyche. Loyalty, bravery, and kindness can save us from disaster. They also help us in the ordinary moments of everyday life.
As we usher in 2015, I’d like to reflect on loyalty, bravery, and kindness in helping us become better leaders, friends, and citizens.
- Loyalty – It’s easy to be loyal when you don’t have to give up anything. But loyalties are put to a test when standing by a friend or colleague could compromise you in some way. Many business situations, ranging from corporate lay-offs to petty office politics, test our loyalties because roles and relationships shift and priorities evolve. Barb’s impulsive attempt to rescue me represents the unfiltered loyalty of a child for a loved one. But when we have to struggle with loyalty to a boss versus a colleague, the company versus a friend, or personal recognition versus the team’s, it’s not always easy to stand by your colleagues and friends. Think of a time when someone stood by you when it wasn’t easy for him/her. Think of a time when you stood by someone and it cost you. Do you have regrets or was loyalty worth the price?
- Bravery – There are a few occasions in our lives when we are presented with the opportunity – and possess the necessary skills – to act with the heroism of the young man who skated over thin ice to rescue me. But there are many moments in our professional lives where small acts of bravery separate leaders from followers. Those with the courage to take initiative in pioneering new solutions to problems, step up to the plate, raise difficult issues, provide tough feedback, or share unpopular opinions help their organizations excel. What holds people back from these brave actions? Fear of being judged … fear of being rejected … fear of failing … fear of losing control. With less fear and more courage, workers take on harder projects, deal better with change, and speak up more willingly about important issues. Think of colleagues who demonstrate “everyday bravery” and how you can be more like them.
- Kindness – My rescue by the young man was very dramatic, but the kind woman showed another form of bravery. She saved us from the very real danger of hypothermia and also provided emotional comfort and security. I remember some in the crowd criticizing me for wandering onto thin ice, but she chose kindness over judgment. Quoting David K. Williams in his Forbes article about brave leaders, “It takes more courage to choose kindness over rudeness.” Have you experienced judgment and acrimony during adversity? In contrast, have you benefited from random acts of kindness? Which of these people do you want to follow?
Despite my close call, I remain enchanted with ice and walking or skating on frozen lakes and ponds. I relish the adventure of the frozen waters, but I’ve learned to watch for warning signs of thin ice and proceed with bravery but caution.