Friday, October 10, 2014

The Mad Scientist

Mad scientist
(Photo credit: Jupiter Images/ThinkStock)
The Mad Scientist
by Jay Stalnacker

I sat looking at the back side of Pikes Peak as I was suppose to be working on an entry in my journal for a leadership course I was attending. The setting was beautiful; we were situated in a outdoor conference facility in the Rocky Mountains.

The course agenda included the typical self awareness surveys and basic leadership styles theories. As the course progressed, it became more of a somewhat uncomfortable reminder for me of what I’m suppose to be correcting in my leadership behaviors and of the influence both our successes and failures have on those working for us. My personality assessment once again highlighted both my detrimental commanding style and visionary inspirational methods. By the end, I was wondering if who I am as a leader is good or bad and if all these years of training, learning and practicing have resulted in anything positive.

At some point, Kerry the lead instructor, talked about "discretionary productivity." In other words, what truly gets done by your folks when your gone and out of the office. A better question he asked was, "how long is your shadow?" What is the positive influence you leave out front and behind your leadership?

As a young boy, I remember sneaking into my grandfather's garage and rummaging through the dust covered tools boxes, playing with grease-dipped tools and crawling all over the old trucks and cars. My grandfather was a self-made man. He worked many years on the railroad, eventually retiring and starting numerous small business adventures. Used car sales, appliance repair and artistic inventor were all some of the careers he had tried. He grew up in a time when you learned to make things from nothing, turning garbage into gold. His garage was a magical place for me. A mixture of a dirty Santa’s workshop and mad scientist lab.

Often I would just sit and watch him from afar as he cussed, grumbled and threw tools at the wall as his inventions and repairs caught fire, exploded and at times shut power down to the entire neighborhood. Sometimes he would let me hold a wrench as he tightened a bolt or crawled into a engine compartment to loosen a nut. After hours of "fixing," we would be called inside via the "intercom" he had installed between the shop and the house. My grandma would shout, "Stanley, get in here… it’s getting late and we all want to eat dinner." He and I would wash our greasy hands in a bucket of gasoline then go inside and enjoy my grandmother's cooking.

My grandfather's shadow was long--it covered my whole being. I never realized how much until later in life as I found my own passion for inventing, building and creating gave me a feeling of gratitude and self worth that nothing had ever provided. Later and as a young man, I would eventually watch my grandfather suffer a stroke and die of cancer. My last memory was helping him change his clothes with my mom and grandmother as he laid dying on the couch in the living room. He died a short time later. Soon I would leave for college, eventually returning to find his shop and it’s magical contents had been sold to the highest bidder at local flea markets. Some distant relatives convinced my grandmother they could make her a fortune. I returned to find the entire shop destroyed. I was devastated. I gathered a few things that they had not yet come back for and sadly walked past the wash can of gasoline for the last time as my grandmother called me in for dinner.

As I matured and found great value in my own ability to build, invent and make trash in treasure, I have never forgotten the happiness my grandfather and I shared working together out in shop. His passion and work ethic has helped me move through life with a better understanding of what it takes to create something. As a husband, father and leader I look at each of these roles in the context of an artist, inventor and repairman. I look at my faith and marriage as the shop or building that holds all of my tools. It’s my foundation and provides a safe place to experiment, make mistakes and create magic. Without God and Kim, I would be nothing and have nothing. Her love, support and encouragement, like my grandmother on the intercom, is my constant call to come in from the work and sit down and have dinner. God’s blessing of my many gifts allows me to speak, write, draw and create. No matter what fire I’ve started or power outage I caused,she always welcomes me home. God has given me the fortitude to move forward even when everything explodes.

As a father, I am a creator and repairman. Obviously, I cannot take full credit for the miracle of Aspen; but I can say that everyday I feel more responsible to help her invent a future and create a vision for life. A child is like one of my grandfather's inventions: beautiful, scary, powerful and amazing. My job as a father is to constantly troubleshoot and when needed make repairs.

As a leader, I feel more like an inventor. My role is to provide vision, direction and purpose and then let the follower develop and perfect. As at times my grandfather was a “mad scientist,” I feel that passion and energy is needed to lead. Some have said you have to be crazy to want to lead, and I somewhat now believe that this inventor spirit is a required element in leadership. It’s that every present optimism and resilience inventors have that makes them move through failure and adversity to eventually find success. This inventor's spirit is a key to leadership not often captured in lectures, assessments and surveys.

As a I glanced back up watching the sunset over Pikes Peak reflecting on the last three days of class and how much I had enjoyed the instruction, I realized it was because Kerry was able to combine not just the academic theories but as a self-made man, had also brought a contagious and adventurous inventor's spirit to our class. This combination of fundamental science sprinkled with an inventor's magic truly is special. If we as leaders can harness just a little of each our inventions, we just may end up making a difference someday. By sustaining, maintaining, repairing and never giving up, we can help make our spouses, children, friends and those we lead not only useful but also uniquely special.

Jay C Stalnacker
Jay Stalnacker is a regular contributor to this blog. Reprinted with permission by Jay Stalnacker, FMO Boulder County Sheriff's Office, from his blog "The North Star Foundation." All expressions are those of the author.

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