Four years ago, when my son Yitzy was approaching the ripe infant age of two, I was basking in pride on a particular day because of what I thought to be a shared father-son accomplishment, and wrote about teaching him how to climb. Yesterday, continuing on that theme, I received a valuable leadership lesson from Yitzy, which is how to get out the way when your kids know how to outclimb you.
Yitzy is now five. And he’s scaling trees and rocks like a wild monkey! Back when he was two, I remember taking full control, and full credit… as if all of his future climbing accomplishments could be linked back to me. Ha! How wrong I was. This time around, it was Yitzy doing all the work, and me trying not to get in the way of his courage and fearlessness as he went higher and higher.
As we took a break from the walking trail to do a bit of climbing, my initial posture was to root for Yitzy to continue going as high as possible up the rocks and trees, building on my endless pride for him. But it only took a few moments into this activity for me to realize that this was not the climbing of the safety-certified playgrounds that I was used to. And more importantly, I realized that my son’s risk tolerance was entirely different than my own.
In those moments I felt an unique emotion which every parent must feel many times, as does perhaps every business manager or leader. That is, I felt I was at a decision point of how exactly I wanted to balance ‘control’ and ‘letting go’.
The feeling that I needed to control every one of Yitzy’s steps up the rocks was a risk-averse emotion on my part, scanning every possible misstep and mentally plotting a potential corrective course. As he went higher and higher, my mind raced faster and faster, watching him climb up from “potential boo boo zone” to “possible broken bones territory” to “that’s super high and this could turn out really, really, bad.” I am not going to lie — I was freaking out.
Thankfully, I caught my anxiety and immediately did my best to temper it with intellect. Just because I was scared, it doesn’t mean that Yitzy was scared. And just because I deemed this activity to be dangerous, it doesn’t mean that it was objectively dangerous. I begged myself to try and mentally let go.
Sensing that I reached a point of clarity, I realized that in this climbing lesson, I was not the teacher at all but the student. My five-year old was ready to reach for the clouds, and as his father I had a unique role. Yitzy would surely pick up on any vocalization or intimation of my own fear, so I mostly just kept my mouth shut, spotted him at times in case he did actually fall, and made sure that I was internalizing all of the courage and ambition he was teaching me in those moments.
I love the story of the 7-yr-old Menachem Mendel Schneerson (later to become the Lubavitcher Rebbe) climbing a pole higher than any of the other kids because unlike the others, he focused only on looking up. And when we took a short lunch break on the trail yesterday, I told this inspiring story to my Yitzy. He loved it.
But inside I knew that I had learned something else… something deeper perhaps… which is a lesson of trust. And it’s a lesson that as a father and a leader, I need to let others shine bright in ways that I might not be able to, or even understand. I need to be proactive not only in passing on positive traits, but also cautious to try and withhold negative traits. I need to curb my need to control and delegate, and try to find relevance in guiding, teaching, and supporting. I need to let others outclimb me.