The racial unrest, anti-immigrant sentiment and bullying rhetoric in our country has me restless. I am in a state of unease for the victimized, the abandoned and marginalized, and horrified of those emboldened by white supremacy. What keeps me up most at night is thinking about the impact of this social epidemic on our children’s sense of security and their identity formation. The context from which this generation emerges will mark how civil society and workplaces evolve. We need to help our children understand how they want to be seen, what they stand for, and how to live that out in this complex and changing world. And we need to help them build tools to understand and navigate the forces that influence culture.
On a recent vacation, while on a “unique tour of the Bahamas”, the type where you are packed like sardines in a speedboat to explore “the most spectacular views in the world”, my nine year old daughter experienced an impromptu, life affirming moment that will, I hope, equip her for this uncertain future. She wrangled a shark. A real life, Tiger Shark.
The tour guides have habituated these endemic sharks to group up next to the shore. They throw a whole, large fish tied to a rope into the pack while the tourists watch in awe safely from the edges of the water. The sharks, 3–4 feet long, bite at the fish like a pack of wild dogs and from time to time one gains enough of a grip that the tour guide, and a few select volunteers, can pull the shark closer to shore and even out of the water.
My daughter was one of those volunteers. This is the same girl who minutes earlier fearfully pulled her hand away when the tourists were given the opportunity to feed a stingray. Also habituated, the stingray gently glided past everyone’s feet in knee deep waters. While these were respectfully dangerous creatures, I’m ashamed to admit that my initial reaction was disappointment that my daughter had been so squeamish while the entire group participated. As we turned our attention to the next “show” — shark wrangling — I was startled to see her eagerly raise her hands when volunteers were sought to wrangle sharks. “Seriously? THIS you’ll do?”
As I watched my darling daughter, and the local shark wrangler who was holding on to the rope far tighter than she, I held a conflicting sense of fear and pride in her showcased bravery. Of course my tenacious daughter would choose to wrangle a shark vs feed a stingray! Both super scary for different reasons. On the first turn, she let her fears get the best of her. When a new opportunity was presented, even when it seemed to be a scarier creature, she jumped at it. She saved her courage points for the big one, and it paid off.
I plan to remind her of that moment when she faces other dangerous creatures in her life. Some will be scarier than others. With each she’ll have to choose which to wrangle and which to let go. And there will be plenty. She will have to learn what to hold onto and what to let go of. And hopefully she’ll become adept at identifying the small and big things she can do everyday to live a meaningful life.
In my career, I’ve focused on doing small things to impact corporate cultures in profound ways. I’ve faced stingrays and sharks of all sorts, and learned to navigate the ecosystems in which they thrive. I’ve steered through workplace tensions that arise when managers are ill-equipped to address bias and inequities in their teams. I’ve dealt with executives who seek to preserve and demand power by hoarding information and diminishing the worth of others, often at the sake of the business and development of future leaders.
I hope she learns to face these scary creatures and moments with clever resolve. I hope she can learn to distinguish these behaviors as human frailties and not characteristics to emulate. And I hope she learns to choose which ones to reel in and which to let go.