A few weeks ago I found myself explaining nuclear fusion to my 12 year old son as we drove to a basketball game. I’m not exactly Bill Nye the science guy. I don’t carry around that kind of science knowledge in my head, but I had recently read a news article on fusion as a promising source of energy followed by a Wikipedia article on the topic. I knew enough on the topic that I was able to transform the final ten minutes of the car ride into an educational delight. I’m sure my son would agree.
In a nutshell, fusion is a process whereby the atoms of a very stable element (hydrogen) are brought close enough together to form a new, heavier atom and eventually a new element (helium). Fusion is the natural process that fuels our sun and it creates a tremendous amount of energy.
Fusion shouldn’t be confused with fission. They are kind of the same, but also pretty much opposites. Nuclear fission takes an unstable element (uranium) and splits its atoms into two or more smaller, lighter atoms, resulting in chain reaction that breaks the element into ever smaller elements. Fission also releases a lot of energy, as well as radiation and waste.
Why the science lesson? As I explained fusion and fission to my son, it occurred to me that the contrast between fusion and fission is a good metaphor for two very different approaches to leadership. Both approaches release energy and create change, but one is harmful and the other helpful.
I recall with some amusement the first time I was aware that I was using algebra outside of my high school and college math classes. Like most young students, I suppose, I had been certain I would never again actually use this stuff, but here I was in a crowded mall in central Florida trying to figure out what size carousel would fit in the atrium where Santa was currently holding court, making it impossible for my business partners and me to step off the diagonal measurement. As we contemplated our dilemma, one of them said “Well, we know that A squared, plus B squared equals C squared, so if we can figure out the perimeter dimensions, we should be able to calculate the diagonal”.
Yep…he dusted off the old Pythagorean Theorem from high school algebra and we figured out what size carousel would fit right there where Santa’s playhouse currently stood.
I was trained to solve problems. As a kid, I was given tests and rewarded for good problem solving. In college, I studied engineering, the ultimate in problem solving. Then I became a pastor and found that ministry is a wonderland of problems. Everywhere you look, problems. It’s like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for people who savor problems.
Then I was introduced to coaching and presented with the idea that the client is fully capable of solving their own problem. Mind blowing! Love it! Relieved! And… difficult to turn my problem-solving brain off when a problem presents itself.
The solution may be in the hands of a four-year old. Have you seen the Marshmallow Experiment? (Here is a link to the book written by the experimenter.) Four-year olds are given a marshmallow and left in a room by themselves for 15 minutes. They are told that if they don’t eat the marshmallow and instead wait until the adult returns, they will get a second marshmallow and can eat them both.
When my client presents a problem to me in the form of a coaching topic, I have the same experience as the four-year old. I want to pick it up and look at it from all sides. When I pick it up, the sugar seems to seep through my skin and into my bloodstream. I’m embarrassed when I pick the problem up and begin to sniff at it, sucking sweet sugar into my nostrils. Before I even know what happened, I find myself enamored with the problem and forgetting that the problem belongs to the client and not to me.
A few weeks ago, I was driving by the elementary school my kids attended when they were younger. As I sat at the traffic light near the school, I noticed the message on their sign: “Every Child Succeeds.”
Honestly, at first the message had zero impact on me. Schools and churches and sometimes businesses put so many of these messages out there that I tend to find them easily ignored noise. But as I sat at the traffic light, this message registered. It lingered. Eventually it annoyed.
The message annoyed me because it’s a lie. I’m sure whoever arranged the plastic letters had good intentions. They likely wanted to encourage each student and parent to know that the teachers were committed to every child’s success. Maybe they also wanted to remind teachers of this commitment. But the message annoyed me because it is not true and sets up a harmful false expectation.
In school and in life, not everyone succeeds. Depending on how you measure success, it’s fair to say that a decent percentage of the population downright fails in many aspects of life. Kids drop out of school. Marriages end. People get fired from their job. Some people commit crimes and go to prison. If we define success as something that everyone achieves no matter what, then we’ve removed the possibility of any real achievement or accomplishment.