Updated: Feb 23
By Matt Gordon
This week I had to give a speech about leadership. Since I couldn’t stand in front of a crowd and say that probably a good deal of leadership is sort of a societal construct through which people sell books and fill conferences, I had to give the idea some deeper thought. My kids came to mind.
I thought of Hope. She is wiggling toward four months. I’ve yet to scold her. She has no impositions on her life. No rules. She just sort of gets to exist as a little doll-baby—we clean her and dress her and carry her about. Life is good and simple for Hope.
Then there is Joey. He is likely going to be our menace. Even so, at the age of two, I’ve noticed only one main rule sticking to his life at present. It is this: Don’t eat nature. This rule is in place because Joey eats nature. He views the outdoor world as a very large buffet. Mulch. Berries. Sand. Just another day at the Golden Corral. The other day I caught him eating a stick. “Why are you eating a stick, Joey?”
“I couldn’t find any leaves,” he shrugged back.
I couldn’t argue with his logic.
“Don’t eat nature!” I repeated, wondering what the neighbors must think of the animalistic heathens we are raising.
The first of the bunch is MJ. He’s four. He had one primary rule this winter: Don’t throw up everywhere. The advent of this rule came at the time that MJ started throwing up as some sort of night-time hobby. In itself that would have been fine—you do you, and all that. But we needed the rule because MJ sleeps on the top bunk and would choose to vomit up over the rail. One night around 2 AM, as I chiseled away at the vomit embedded in the popcorn ceiling, I asked him eloquently, “WHY!?”
“I don’t want to get my friends,” he answered cheerily, holding up his “friends”—a stuffed monkey and iguana.
“Bro!” I retorted.
I was not trying to be cool by using the word “bro.” I was, with horror, pointing to MJ’s brother, Joey, who sleeps on the bottom bunk. Joey was frequently the recipient of friendly fire from above. It was a scene out of Pompei most nights.
Recently, though, I noticed a second imposition finding its way to MJ’s life. With this second rule, I had a realization. Hope has no rules. Joey has one. MJ, now, has two.
It made me think about life, about birth. We are born—all of us, I would guess—and we wail. Then whimper. Then whine. Then we coo and sort of croon and babble. Eventually a word escapes us. Then another. Now a third. And we are onto something: Speech! We begin knitting these words, thoughts strung together and hung to decorate and color the world around us. For the rest of our lives, we delve forward into elocution; we speak. And by our speaking, we dictate, determine, decide, dream, demand, detest, and direct. None of us stops at “Mama.”
Or take mobility. We are born and then we just sort of lay there. For months we do this. It is an all-inclusive situation. But at some point, we grow tired of tired living, and we roll. Then we crawl. We stand, we step, we toddle, we walk, we run, we ride, we skate, we drive. At some point we fly. We travel. We move about this mortal coil with more and more purpose. None of us with the choice, stops at rolling—“This is all I’ll ever need!”
Point is, we humans are forever attempting to forge more freedoms. We aren’t content with walking when walking faster is any kind of option. We are pioneers, striking off west into new, better, different—we yearn for more.
But that yearning costs something. For all who have run have fallen down. Scraped knees is the cost of increasing freedom of mobility, and in all ways of increasing freedom, there are some sort of knees and some sort of scrapes. We are forever forging more freedoms, and, in so doing, we create complexity.
That is why MJ now has a second rule. It is because his intellect is growing. He is gaining ability. And hence comes the freedom, with complexity in tow.
Therefore, the second rule finds his ear daily. In fact, it was the last thing I said to him when I left this morning—Be a leader.
I don’t say this in a kitschy seven-steps-to-lead-with-integrity manner. I’m just invoking a maxim that is self-evident. Leadership lives in the nexus of increasing freedom and enhanced complexity. Leaders try to bring freedom to their own lives and the lives of the people around them. They start a business, consider ethics, innovate, dream; they grow tired of laying there, stand and take a step. This puts them—if they are any good—on the frontlines of complexity. Start a company? Cool. Now figure out the taxes. Birth children? Clean up the vomit.
For MJ, “be a leader” means—Sure, kid, you can play Nintendo Switch at night . . . but you have to obey when you are told to turn it off. Yes, you can grow your hair out because you are autonomous enough to discern aesthetics . . . but you have to brush the tangled mess each morning. You are big enough to play in the backyard without a hovering adult . . . but you, then, are responsible enough to look after your brother. You can sleep on the top bunk . . . but you must throw up sensibly.
You can play soccer.
Yes, with age and capability, MJ has been given the glorious freedom of youth sports.
We went to his first game a few weeks ago. My wife and I were pretty excited. Soccer had come fairly naturally to both of us. So the expectation for our first born was probably similar to how it must have been for Lionel Messi’s parents when he first took the field. Rather than Messi, we got a large dose of messy. It seemed our son should stick to vomiting—he was way more skillful at that, and, to be honest, it made me less nauseous. He was bad; his team, worse.
When we got home, I tried to find tactful ways to get him into the backyard to go over some basics of the game without coming across like the dad who gets his son into the backyard to go over some basics of the game. We practiced a footful of times, and I, for one, felt better prepared for game two.
And game two went a little better. MJ was more engaged and seemed to understand the game more—like this time he realized there was actually a ball, and going near it and even touching it were encouraged.
Trouble was, they somehow let a 19 year-old into the under-5 league. Wonder Woman was suited up for the other team. Five minutes in, after about her thirtieth goal, I began drafting an email to the league about mandatory drug testing. I didn’t necessarily want her banned from the league, but I did want to figure out whatever it was she was on so I could get MJ on it too.
In the closing minutes of the game, we found ourselves down ninety goals or so, and this amazon woman took off down the field once more. She had the strides of an Olympian, but little Flinstonian steps pitter-pattered behind her—MJ! MJ was chasing her down!
He met her at the goal-line and made a last stand worthy of Thermopylae. Somehow, he stole the ball from her! Likely, she was thinking about prom or something. It makes no difference—my miniscule son had the ball and dribbled straight into the pack before him.
There, every local elementary schoolchild gathered to throw their misguided feet at the ball and one another.
When suddenly, out popped MJ . . . with the ball! He had broken free, and he took off—just like we had practiced, far from the madding crowd!
A hawk flew overhead, capturing the attention of his pursuers, freeing him up to dash down the field, from goal-line to goal-line.
Parents began to take notice and took up the old standards—GO! RUN! SCORE! Somehow, I had ended up atop my lawn chair—GO! RUN! SCORE!
As dreams were about to come true and hopes were to be realized, MJ stopped. Right on the goal-line. GO! SHOOT! SCORE! the mob demanded.
He stood. Stood. Stood. Ball on the line and him behind it.
About seventeen minutes passed in this manner. Then one of his teammates, Briggs, meandered his way upfield and assessed the situation. Briggs looked at MJ, at the ball, back at MJ, and he approached and rocket-footed the ball into the net.
The crowd erupted! They chanted Briggs’s name. Briggs ran over into the arms of his father, who, weepy-eyed, twirled him. That was my twirl! That was my—I mean MJ’s goal! I hated them.
And in that resentment, the whistle blew, ending the game, the misery.
MJ approached me and recapped the game, especially the play at the end. He rattled off the details about the chase-down, the goal-line stand, the fight in the pack, the deliverance, and the sprint. Then he got to his nearly-shining moment and he said, “And then my friend scored a goal!” He was elated.
I got on his level, and I took his chubby cheeks in my hands. Probably a large part of me wanted to say, “Son, shooters shoot. Take a lap.” But I didn’t. Because in that moment I understood it. I understood what had happened.
I held his cheeks in my hands, looked in his bright eyes, and said, “You were a leader.”
MJ had increased the freedom for another. Briggs was probably on his way to Dairy Queen as we spoke, to celebrate his first goal. MJ had navigated the complexity for his team—taming the she-beast, escaping the swarm, rolling the ball downfield toward a success.
Accidentally or not, he was a leader in that moment because he had used his ability or passion or grit or circumstance or luck, to enhance the lives of others.
I still don’t get leadership—the way we fixate on all these tactics and quippy maxims. But I know we all want more freedom tomorrow than we have today, and we all need help with the onslaught of complexity life brings our way. Leaders make realities out of these desires, whether they score the goal or not.
We drove home from the 89-goal defeat happy. We had a whole day ahead of us still, a whole life, in truth. There was much still to get to—a world of nature to eat, as we strike off into the realization of better and better-made realities.