Lessons for Life and Leadership from the Lawn

I wanted to name this series “Lessons from the Garden” because it sounds nice and gardens are beautiful. However, I kill plants inside and out on a regular basis so that seemed misleading. In truth, I spent much of the summer of 2016 weeding my front yard. It wasn’t glamorous and didn’t result in anything with splendid color. I toyed with the idea of “Lessons from the Yard,” but I thought that title made it sound like I was in prison. I decided on “lawn,” and whatever you call it, I learned a lot sitting in the grass for a summer.

 Lesson 5: The Neighbors Are Spies

When I was out in the yard over the summer, I had a great opportunity to observe the actions of my neighbors. I began to learn their morning routines. Most of them left around 7am.  I’m not good at recognizing cars, but I learned who was in each one. Some of them I know by name and some I named myself.

Right before the small NASCAR race out of the neighborhood at 7am, a red minivan would zip down the street and into the driveway at the end of the cul-de-sac. A young couple with one small child and one on the way lives in that house. I don’t like to mess with people’s privacy so we will call them Amelia and Jake.

Amelia is in our neighborhood book club so I know a bit about her and her husband. I know that the red minivan zipping into her driveway is driven by her mother who comes and watches their toddler while Amelia and Jake are at work. Sometimes either Jake or Amelia would leave before the red minivan arrived, but never both! Someone always makes sure that the handoff to Grandma was complete.

It’s interesting that you get a feel for the mood of the drivers as they pass by. Grandma in the red minivan was always a little frantic and in a hurry. Amelia and Jake are two of the calmest, most laid back people I know. Even if Amelia leaves later than normal, she never seems harried. She sits back in the seat, waves, and smiles as she goes by.

Another family with small children lives across the street and down one from us. I call them the Coopers because they drive MINI Coopers. Honestly, I would have to look up their real last name. They have two small children and they walk as a family every evening. They walk slowly because the children are not in strollers; they are walking. It caught me as such a novel idea when I first saw them creeping down the sidewalk with a toddler. I think it’s a great idea now!

The Coopers are squared away and regimented in their schedule. Mowing day, car washing day, family walk, and grocery shopping are all on a schedule. I see them as an efficient and purposeful family. They are very controlled and organized.

I began to observe and draw conclusions about the more of my neighbors. Rocket Scientist hates his job; Santa is lonely; Cute-Family Dad is all about achieving; Double Dog is looking for things to do in retirement; and Stink Eye is struggling with a health issue. Lead and Trail are two women who walk together, but never side by side. Trail follows Lead by up to six feet. Trail is an older woman trying to be sociable. Lead is a freight train who can’t be stopped or slowed by anything in life.

Keep in mind, these are names and deductions that I made up based on very brief observations. One day, it occurred to me that the chances of my conclusions being true were quite slim. In fact, they weren’t conclusions, they were assumptions. I was making the stories up in my head and then converting them into truth. It’s not an uncommon practice.

We make assumptions all the time. If someone walks into work and doesn’t say good morning, we assume that they are mad at us or purposefully being anti-social. In truth, the person might have had a fight that morning with a family member or a fender bender. Perhaps his or her father is ill. There are a million possible reasons for the lack of a morning greeting besides being angry at us or intentional rudeness.

We play a dangerous game when we convert assumptions into truth. We are basing our actions and reactions on stories that we have made up! Assumptions can ruin relationships by keeping us from seeing the real truth in a situation and acting appropriately.

The only way to know what’s going on is to ask. If someone doesn’t say good morning, don’t assume the worst! It’s a good idea to approach the person and say, “You seem a little out of sorts this morning. Is everything OK?” At the very least, keep saying good morning and don’t get upset. Chances are that the person’s lack of a morning greeting has nothing to do with us.

It can be fun to make up stories! Creating alternate scenarios for our observations can help us see situations from different perspectives. We just need to remember to clearly label them “stories” and not “truth.”

While weeding, I noticed that one car would drive up to the Coopers about once a week. It was an older man who would go to the door, talk for a brief time, and leave. He would return after a while and repeat the process. Sometimes, I could see him hand off a bag through a crack in the storm door. I was so curious, and I made up all kinds of stories to explain that situation.

I thought the man could be Grandpa and he was going to the door to ask what they needed from the store. Then he would make a run to the store and deliver whatever was requested. But, why wouldn’t Mom Cooper just call or text the list? Maybe Grandpa refuses to use the phone. Perhaps he has some phobia or hearing problem.

Or, they could be part of some drug ring, but that theory didn’t seem to fit. Then I thought, maybe they are spies! They don’t want to pass information by phone or text because that could be traced. The older man picks up information, delivers it, and then comes back with new instructions. Maybe there were passports with new identities in the bag! Ha! That is one of my best made-up stories ever!

Of course, all of those are probably false, and the only way to find out would be to ask. Although asking feels a little creepy and stalkerish in this instance. It will remain for now, a great mystery.

There is a benefit to making up different motivations for the things that we observe. The ability to see situations and actions in different lights is an essential leadership skill that helps with strategic planning. When figuring out long-term goals for an organization, we hypothesize about how consumers and competition will react to certain conditions. The more creative we can be, the more prepared we are.

So, go ahead and make up stories. Watch people and create motivations for their actions. It’s good practice for the development of analytical skills and creativity as long as you clearly recognize that you are dealing in fiction, not fact. What are your neighbors up to?



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