What Got Into Jack?


Jack, aged 13.5 jolted me out of deep thinking yesterday. I’d been thinking a lot about leadership and what some have called “the Great Humbling.” The Great Humbling is America’s experience of our crushing debt and lingering unemployment; the realization we can’t defend the entire world; the recognition that other world powers are rising. So, this week’s Newsweek – not yet out – offers an article entitled “Dead Suit Walking,” which asks: “Can manhood survive the lost decade?” They chronicle a major surge in unemployment among white males in New York that exceeds all other groups, including teenage girls. Their survey of long term laid off white men is harrowing. Yes, yes, poor white guys, I know:  They have it so bad. The point, though, is worth noting: the economy has changed, and no one – including white guys, can stand on pride or entitlement.

So, I was thinking about  “everyday leadership,” and what does this Great Humbling demand of us as bosses and parents and leaders? How do we respond? Just then Jack sat at the breakfast table and threw me a curve.

Jennifer and I have become very involved in his studies and work, pushing him to excel. We’re using tools like “Power School,” a software program that allows parents to view how their child is doing every single day, in every single class. Our inspections have had me worried that Jack’s going to get dependent on us, right when he should be going in the opposite direction. But, as in being a boss, you walk a fine line – watching very short term results, while building long-term capacity; expecting compliance, while hoping for commitment.

So Jack’s sitting across from me finishing a bowl of  Apple Jacks and says, “I’m going to do my homework.” Huh, that’s interesting. He starts in on his Spanish, as I start in on my email. He says, “By the way, here’s my planner from the last week if you want to see it.” He flashes two pages, filled in for every class. “That’s a flip,” I say. “You’ve never done that before.” He says, disbelievingly, “Never done my planner?” I say, “No, never offered it to me without me bugging you.” “Oh,” he says, “I guess that’s true.” I tell him, “That’s cool. Good work.”

He finishes his Spanish, proudly showing two pages, completely filled out. “I’m going to do my vacuuming now.” he says. I’m thinking:  Where did my son go, and who is this kid?  All day I wondered what had happened, and at dinner I asked if he knew why he was so self-driven today? He said, “I just wanted to get my work out of the way.”  “But why?” I asked, three different ways, trying to peel the onion of his conscious and unconscious thoughts.  He and Jennifer both laughed at my insatiable need-to-know.  He said he just didn’t want stuff hanging over his head all day.

I could offer lots of hypotheses for what had moved Jack on this day: biochemical changes like those that have shot him past me in height; feeling competence in sports; something he read; a great day spent with his dad (cuz it’s always about me  🙂 or his mom’s consistent pushing.  Although I can’t know, I have one abiding suspicion:  We have repeatedly expressed a vision of his being responsible and taking  initiative.

I suspect that initiative is the strongest leadership prescription as we move from the Great Humbling.  Our recovery and reinvention will come as we realize we can’t count on big companies, big government, big labor any more. As parents it means we need to help our kids – of whatever age – realize that it’s all about initiative. And with our employees we need to figure out ways to communicate that we don’t just need their participation but need their leadership.

There is little that is more inspiring than to observe people recover from humbling, show independence and step up.  Spurring independence is one of the greatest rewards when you

Lead with your best self!


  • Dan,

    Jack so gets it! Everyday I challenge kids to DREAM, BELIEVE, ACHIEVE!!! I challenge them to think about solving problems like WORLD PEACE, Cancer, bullying, etc.

    Jack represents our future, a future that is full of hope and wonder. Jack and kids just like him are out there everyday, dreaming dreams that we have never dreamed before. Creating new realities that we dare not imagine that are full of hope and problem solving and solutions! BRAVO JACK!!! Our future is in good hands. ~The TIP Lady

  • Dan, our kids have grown up together and played sports together. Ali with Ceci and Brennan with Jack. This was a wonderful post. It was humbling, in itself, and made me think about the “big picture”. What we’re doing as parents will impact who our kids become, but they will grow and live their lives beyond our influence soon enough. For now, it’s thrilling to have those glimpses into who they will be as responsible adults.

  • Yes, Dan, we can’t count on big companies, big government, big labor any more.

    Now, it is up to us individually to discover the life we wish to lead and find the happiness we seek—since we can no longer count on big brother to protect and guide us.

    As the upcoming Newsweek issue will most likely state: During the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, men lost far more jobs than women.

    As more women enter the workforce, and many become the primary breadwinners, there is a structural shift taking place within organizations and households. Statistics tell the story. Over 75% of women age 25-54 worked in 1998. In 2009, 66 million women were employed in the U.S. with the largest percentage (40%) in management, professional, and related occupations; 32 percent worked in sales and office occupations and 21 percent in service occupations.

    Today, young college-educated women in New York City and other major cities are earning more than their male counterparts. It is estimated that 870 million women who have not participated in the mainstream global economy will gain employment or start their own companies over the next decade.

  • Your missive today, “What Got Into Jack?” had me shaking my head and thinking that you and Jennifer are absolute control freaks! My husband and I raised two sons who did not have “planners” and software programs to track their every move in thier formative years. Yet they are both college educated, self-movivated young men young men sucessful in their chosen careers. We truly led by example and not by today’s available and over-rated tools! Really what makes us most proud is when someone tells us what nice young men we have. That is the “footprint” we want to leave.

    • Hey K Smith,
      Great post! We may well be control freaks. Hopefully, not “absolute” ones, though.
      Congrats to you on raising “nice young men.” The pride is deserved!
      But allow me to clarify: The point of today’s missive was actually consistent with what you’re saying, i.e., that the parent focus should NOT be to exercise a control that generates compliance. Instead, it’s always working towards generating independence and responsibility. But sometimes, as parents and bosses, we make use of tools to build capacity. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
      I think that the school systems’ adoptions of planners is one of the great improvements of the last 25 years. Your and my worlds as students – and perhaps your sons’ as well – was not filled with the bombardment of a million stimuli that kids face today. I didn’t need a planner. I actually could REMEMBER my homework with my own gray matter. What a concept. But I sure can’t remember my homework today; it’s why I write two-week goals and have a to-do list on my screen. I believe in the credo that “if it ain’t written, it ain’t real.” When I’m at a meeting and people who have been assigned or agreed to something don’t write it down, the other thing that goes down is my level of trust. So, I’m thrilled that my daughters and sons have learned to keep a list, to use a planner. Oddly, having a planner for me means I am less distracted, preoccupied, working about what I’m forgetting. That makes me I hope – like your sons – not a control freak, but a nice, not-so-young man. 🙂
      Thanks for your reaction and response.
      As I say, your perception may be right: We may be a couple of control freaks. I’m sure Jack thinks so, too.
      Keep writing with your best!

  • Hi cousin,

    “Power school” Oh my God, you mean there’s now spyware for parents!!! I’m with Jack in his need for independence.
    Don’t forget the one thing you didn’t mention in your article. Love is the guiding force behind all your parental worries
    Pushy parents is the term here for those who drive their children to excel at the expence of their children’s childhood. Not that I think you or Jenny are guilty of that.
    Beware! Jack will be patting you on the head and telling you not to worry and that He is OK!!!

    Your weekly postings are always intriguing. The pursuit of happiness (The american dream) has become a lot harder since a bunch of rapacious and greedy financiers destroyed the economy.

    Love to all [J, K, C, J]

    • Speaking of spying, Cousin Phil: How did you know Jack was patting me on the head and telling me all will be well?!!!
      Couldn’t agree with you more about the power of love. I trust a thousand times less in our parental tactics than in the example of loving parenthood our parents offered us. We will raise him well in spite of ourselves!
      As to Economics: I wonder why we in America don’t seem to see the role of greed in our economic system the way so many do from across the pond. Our wealth gets more and more concentrated and middle Americans have been (up until very recently it seems) willing to fight for the Bush tax cuts for people like me who really don’t need them. But that’s another story for another day! Good to hear from you back in the Motherland.
      Enjoy the Triduum and celebrate Easter.

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