“They carried all they could bear and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” --Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
As I sorted through my book collection recently, I hesitated between the ‘must keep’ and ‘give away’ piles. I have a level of attachment to books that borders on obsessive, so the oft-broken rule is to get rid of two before I can buy one more. I have a shelf of much-read favorites, as most book lovers do, and I pulled one out of the ‘must keep’ pile to move to the favorites shelf. As I blew the dust off the binding, I remembered stumbling across the title on Amazon a couple of years ago. Once it was in my hands, I couldn’t put it down. If you have not read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, it is a beautifully written work of fiction about the Vietnam War. The language and the theme of physical and emotional burdens is both riveting and haunting.
Imagine, if you will, what infantry soldiers might carry. In addition to weapons, rations, dog tags, matches, water, and the ponchos that most carried (in which some of their bodies were subsequently wrapped when they died), there were also items of individual significance. The choices included items such as letters from home, bible verses, comic books, photos, religious jewelry, good luck charms, cigarettes, drugs (mostly weed), and for one young man, his girlfriend’s pantyhose that he wrapped around his neck on every mission. They carried diseases and superstitions. They carried gut-wrenching fear and immeasurable courage. They carried the anger of young men, fueled by shame and guilt, and they carried hope. Today, the living still carry the memories of unspeakable experiences from long ago.
What do you take with you wherever you go? If I had to guess, for most of us it is likely to be a phone and a wallet. I always carry cash, but I find that most people prefer to carry a credit or debit card and little or no currency. I don’t like to carry a purse so generally what I have in hand is my phone, with both a credit card and a twenty-dollar bill tucked inside the case (along with the voice of my dad in my ear, “always have a way to get yourself home”) and usually a set of keys.
Last week I was scheduled to attend a conference at a resort on the coast and was running late, which is not normal for me. It had been that kind of a day, and frankly, that kind of a week. I was looking forward to the sessions scheduled for the next day, including one on organizational culture which is one of my passions. A couple of my colleagues were awaiting my arrival in the downstairs lounge at the resort, so I arrived at the registration desk in a hurry and gave my name, with credit card in hand, expecting a quick check-in. The front desk clerk promptly and efficiently asked for a photo ID. I had left my wallet and my purse in the car, not expecting to bring my belongings in until later. I don’t like to carry more than I need. I was caught by surprise.
“Um, I don’t have it on me. Do I really need it check in?” I asked, giving my best, most charming smile and a squint while glancing at my watch. The answer, of course, was yes. As we debated the point for a minute (in a friendly way), I texted my colleague to let him know I was further delayed. “May need to borrow your ID…” was my message, and the reply was spot-on: “Okay by me but you’d never pass for 5’6”. Funny guy. It was a valid point. Back to the car I went, and my coworkers patiently waited while I verified my identity with the front desk. At least my credit card wasn’t declined this time, and there was still plenty of wine left to enjoy. I had my ID ready, just in case.
Later that evening at the event reception, I met a fellow conference attendee who was former coworker of one of my colleagues. He asked about my role at the credit union. This question is always a puzzle for me to answer, possibly because I can over-complicate just about everything. All he wanted to know is what I do at the credit union, not the depths of what I think.
While many people seem to carry their work titles easily, I’m not always big on the titles or hierarchy that can be used to define us, so after a somewhat crazy day, I allowed this string of responses run through my head: prison warden, playground monitor, cat herder, plate spinner, trainer of flying monkeys, cultural evangelist. In truth, most times it feels like I’m leading the most talented orchestra in the world and I’m the off-key tuba player who just needs to stop playing and let the virtuosos do their thing.
In true introvert form, I generally shrug and say something like, “some lending stuff, some cultural stuff, some development stuff,” but it always feels awkward. I’ve decided the next time I will say, “I lead people and try to stay out of their way while they do great things.” Maybe that will do. Or, I could just remember to carry business cards. Of course, this could be the primary reason why I don’t connect easily with people. It can take too much effort to understand the seemingly unrelated and quirky thoughts I carry in my head.
Another thing we all carry is both curiosity and knowledge. I had been looking forward to the conference presentation on designing credit union culture, only to find it wasn’t about what I think of as cultural work at all. The presentation was good and had interesting points on culture as a strategy that can drive performance. The thing that was missing for me was the focus on people and how to define and set a solid foundation of shared values and beliefs. It occurred to me that maybe I know more about the subject than I thought.
What I know is that without inspired, courageous people who are committed to the daily work of building leaders and sustaining a strong culture, culture is just another strategy and intellectual exercise with a limited shelf-life. A truly outstanding culture comes from dedicated people who carry and embody the shared beliefs and values. As I thought about what might have been missing from the presentation, it was that emphasis on what we carry individually, in our hearts, that contributes to an organization’s culture.
What do you carry? Most people who know me know that I don’t go far without my notebook, and I almost always have a book (or two) close by. One of these days I may consider trying a Kindle since I’m told I can carry my entire library on it and read in bed without a light, but for now, I like the look and feel of a book.
What else do we carry? It’s fascinating once you start to think about it. People carry coffee or water everywhere. Purses are full of things I could never keep track of but are handy when you need them, like combs or tissues or gum. We all need to carry keys or ID badges at work. Almost all of us with a wallet have a driver’s license and pictures of people who are important to us. Some people carry knives, or pocket change, or a lighter. My dad never went anywhere without a handkerchief or bandana in his back pocket. He also carried strength, an endearingly dry sense of humor, and silent, pervasive grief for the loss of his middle child.
Ah, yes. What about the intangibles? Do you know what you carry, or as a leader, what the people in your care carry? Organizations, after all, are a microcosm of their people. There are people among us carrying burdens and strengths that we know nothing about. The burdens can range from financial distress to domestic violence, life threatening illness, substance abuse, broken relationships, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. You just never know.
Think also of the strengths that people carry that may be unseen but can make the difference between success and failure. You can’t tell by looking at someone what their level of determination or resilience will be. Humility is one of the greatest leadership gifts to carry, as is a personal sense of courage. Kindness and caring for the well-being of others are vastly underrated. Some of us carry stubbornness, which is okay if we don’t (stubbornly) carry it too far.
There are also things that we carry, and that the people in our care might carry, that hold us back. Often, these are perceived limitations that we place on ourselves or on others. We all carry a certain amount of bias, judgment, and expectation. Sometimes we carry grudges, disappointment, and heartache. We also carry our blind spots. If we are fortunate, there are people in our lives who help us see beyond the things that prevent us from moving ahead. These people focus on the things we carry but sometimes manage to keep hidden, such as our gifts and talents that we are afraid to share with the wider world, and our hopes and dreams that we dare not speak aloud.
We all carry potential. We all carry burdens. How we explore and move beyond some of our challenges is a wonderful testament to the human spirit. There are stories around us that we simply don’t know and would likely change the way we look at others. I think about our opportunities to impact each other’s lives daily. Sometimes we don’t get relationships quite right and cause each other hurt. That’s when the best thing any of us can carry is faith in the goodness of people in whom we have placed our trust and our hearts, that perhaps we don’t know the reasons why and to find a way to understanding and forgiveness.
As we head into fall, I think about what felt like a tough summer for me and how important it is to focus on the road ahead. Unexpected turns are part of the journey for all of us, and my challenges are small in comparison to most. I also know what I have learned about myself. I can acknowledge and appreciate the depth of my own emotions, my strong sense of optimism, and my enduring gratitude for those who believe in me and think I am worthy of their investment and time. Sometimes the best thing you can carry is a friend in need until they find their way back again.
Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. In the words of the late Senator John McCain, "I wish all of you great adventures and good company."
Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-sparrow/.