You hold the flashlight

When I was a kid growing up on a farm in Iowa, I always wanted to help my dad fix things. You know, do REALLY important work.

After my older brother left for college I’d actually get called into action by my dad to go fix things. He’d invite me along and then say: “You can hold the flashlight.” As he hunkered down in front of the furnace, the car, the tractor, the water pump by the barn, he’d hand me the flashlight and say, “OK point it right here” or “I have a problem. Quick… point it there.”

So, I felt insulted. Was it because I was a girl? Or just a kid? What? He didn’t seem to invite me because he necessarily wanted me beside him, or certainly because he really wanted me there to teach me anything.

But I’d help him over and over. And I’d ask questions: “What are you doing there? Why that way? Why does that work the way it does?”

And I held the flashlight.

I also helped him fix things that we needed to farm successfully. Or keep the house working. Or make sure a cow or sow didn’t die giving birth.

I was still kind of offended. I have to admit. But… in spite of myself I watched, and I learned while I held the flashlight. I learned how to light a pilot light in a furnace that was stone cold. I learned how to change the oil in a VERY old tractor. I learned how to help guide a wide-eyed farm animal to give birth.

Looking back, I saw that I was not only holding the flashlight. I was learning in the dark.

My father’s goal in each instance was not to teach me but I think he covertly knew that he was. It was to get a particular job done that I was asked to help him do. Because I, fortunately, moved past being affronted in the moment and was curious and willing to learn, I did learn.

Today given all that is going on, we feel we are more in the dark than ever. What’s going to happen? Is everything going to be OK? How do we fix this?

A big question for leaders is: How can we help teach people who have fewer years of experience than we do when we are busy trying to stay safe, save our companies and move through this crisis?

My advice: if given the opportunity to hold the flashlight by someone who knows how to fix something in this day and age, take it. Look and learn. Be curious. Give it a chance. Even if the person fixing it doesn’t say, “Hey, I’m going to teach you this while you shed light on the task at hand,” please recognize the opportunity.

And learn. In the dark.

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