When Being Wrong Was Exactly Right

“Son, I’m sorry. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t lose my wrench, I misplaced it. Will you forgive me?” These words, and the circumstances surrounding them, mark one of the best life & leadership lessons I’ve ever learned.

I was nine years old and just a few weeks prior to that apology my dad had surprised me with a Honda motorcycle/trail bike. I loved it!  I was king of the road when I climbed on that hog. At 9 years old I was already so tall that while riding, it looked a bit like an ant carrying a popsicle stick. In my mind however I looked as cool as Evel Knievel.

It was often difficult to get “Lil’ Red’s” engine fired up, but always worth the effort that typically left me a bit breathless for the first few minutes of the ride. One day those kickstarting efforts took even more time and energy than normal, resulting in a flooded engine. Too much fuel to start…go figure. Not to worry tough, I knew what to do! I went to dad’s toolbox and pulled out his trusty crescent wrench. With one quick twist I could loosen a valve below the motor and drain the fuel that was flooding the engine. Simple! I’d done it several times. Like those many times before, it worked! Excess fuel drained and I got Lil’ Red’s engine howling!  Well, okay…more like purring. Didn’t matter, we were off on another adventure…jumping cracks in the sidewalk and running away from the “bad guys” escaping just in the nick of time. Despite these victories, when I returned home and heard, “MIKE! Did you use my wrench? Where did you put it when you were done?” the mood quickly changed.

This was the beginning of a short, but intense interrogation. “What did you use it for? What did you do with it when you were done? You need to be careful and more responsible with things, especially when they are not yours.” Though his voice was calm, his disappointment and frustration were real and duly noted. I felt terrible. In my head I put it back as soon as I was done with it, but I couldn’t say with 100% certainty that my head and my actions were in alignment. I ran to the church parking lot where I performed my mechanical feats of magic just a couple hours earlier, but no wrench. I retraced all the steps I took prior to getting Lil’ Red running. Still no wrench. I accepted defeat, admitted to Dad that I had lost his wrench and that I was very sorry. I hated disappointing anyone, especially my parents.

Later that afternoon I am on the couch watching some of my favorite Saturday television when Dad walks in. He walks over and sits next to me on the couch. His demeanor is much softer, and so is his voice. “Son, I’m sorry. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t lose my wrench, I misplaced it. Will you forgive me?”  Dad had been working on the “pop-up” camper we owned. He used the wrench, apparently it was sometime after I had used it, to tighten a few bolts. Eventually he cranked the camper up and opened it to air it out. Guess what was sitting right there on the roof of the camper when he cranked it back down?

Dad really didn’t have to say a thing to me that day. He could have simply been happy he found his wrench. His disappointment in me earlier in the day was hardly a confrontation that would have caused problems later in our relationship. At nine years old I had only begun to misplace, lose and break things around the house. But that’s what made such an impression on me even at a young age. The leader I looked up to most humbled himself, admitted his mistake and asked ME to forgive HIM. Once he realized what happened he stopped what he was doing, came and found me, owned his mistake and made things right. Over the years I would witness my father leading, not just me and my family, but also his students and athletes with a fantastic harmony of firmness, love and humility.

Leading with the strength to own mistakes and with the best interests of others at heart. Being courageous enough to seek out wrongs needing righted. My Dad embodies these attributes of leadership, and to this day I still run into people he has taught or coached who share stories of the impact he had on them. Not because he is perfect, but instead owns his imperfection and leads and loves well because of it.

Do you lead from a place of humility and service? At home, at work or in your community? How might your imperfections and mistakes better inform and empower you to do so?