Hailstones and gunnysacks

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert C. Bearden
  • 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron
In the late 1940s, my Grandpa supported his young family by farming the McClure Orchard in Bloomfield, N.M. This orchard of more than 20 acres of apple trees was their primary source of income and, as with any farming operation, was labor-intensive and weather-dependent. This dependency, unfortunately, resulted in a family legend that I often reflect upon when times are uncertain or when crisis strikes.

In the summer of either 1947 or 1948, the crop was coming along well, and much of the intense labor that goes into an orchard had been done. The pruning and spraying were complete, and the trees had blossomed and begun to put on a good crop of apples that would sustain the family through the coming year.

Then crisis struck. A storm blew in, and my Grandpa later recalled it a was hailstorm blowing from west to east, pausing long enough to offer a brief respite, and then blowing from east to west. When all was said and done, hailstones several inches deep covered the ground and that year's crop was no longer. It was a total loss.

With the storm finally spent, and all of that year's labor and income completely lost, my Grandpa gave my dad an unusual task: go get a gunnysack out of the apple barn. Gunnysack in hand, my dad followed my Grandpa out into the orchard where Grandpa began filling the sack with hailstones. They returned to the house where my Grandma had ice cream mix and the hand-crank ice cream freezer ready to go. The hailstones that had destroyed their year's livelihood now made possible an ice cream feast that my dad remembers to this day.

As I reflect upon that story, I recognize several things about my Grandpa and, tellingly, about leadership. First, my Grandpa had the presence of mind to recognize the difference between what he could and could not control. Second, he saw opportunity where others would see only disaster. Finally, he calmly led his family through a crisis by not letting the present define the future.

In much the same way, we Airmen must often lead our people and organizations through crises we cannot anticipate or control. For example, none of us could determine or influence whether or not Sequestration and the furlough would happen, but we can all control our responses to these challenges. This is a critical component of leadership. Leaders know what they can control, and emphasize controlling their responses to difficult situations. At the same time, leaders see opportunity where others only see disaster.

So the sequester has brought about budget cuts that none of us would willingly take in our organizations, but what efficiencies can we create from those cuts? In what ways will we do our work smarter, better, and more effectively? Shifting perspective may be one of the most difficult leadership traits to master, and it does not come naturally to most of us. But if we can first control our response to crises and then see opportunity where others see disaster, what a gift we can offer our organizations and our followers.

Finally, leaders do not let the present define the future. Had my Grandpa surveyed the orchard and said, "Well kids, we're all washed up," my dad's memory of the event would be very different. He'd remember a disaster, instead of remembering an ice cream feast that is unmatched to this day. As each of us lead our people or strive to become a leader, we too should always keep in mind that the crisis of today does not have to define our future or the future for those we lead. Those we lead, however, will always remember our response in times of crisis: did we let the hailstones defeat us, or did we grab gunnysacks and get to work making ice cream?