I turned 61 recently, and although many of my friends tell me that I don’t look my age, I sure feel it. I had to give up skiing a few years ago because my cartilage-deficient knees couldn’t handle the stress, and I cannot backpack anymore because the stenosis in my lower back won’t allow me to carry anything heavier than my laptop without bending me over like Walter Brennan. And for those of you who don’t follow my reference to Walter Brennan, well, you are probably way younger than I am, and your time is coming. But in spite of the tricks I can no longer perform, I have learned a new one that fills me with joy, excitement and a healthy sense of terror.
I have been an entrepreneur of some sort for the better part of 25 years, but I always managed to rig the game so that I had a partner to share the risks with. Whenever my business needed to hire someone, that responsibility always fell on my partner. I never had to take full responsibility for all aspects of my business.
At the end of 2003, I co-founded DeWaard and Jones Company with Dick DeWaard. True to form, we were 50-50 partners, and all key decisions were made jointly. This had the effect of slowing down our (my) decision-making process substantially, but we made pretty good decisions. Unfortunately, however, if we could not agree, nothing happened, and this led to rising frustration and relationship tension.
By 2007, it was becoming apparent that something needed to shift, so we reached an agreement that allowed Dick to step into an individual contributor role and I stepped up to take full responsibility for running the business, and for paying Dick a healthy premium for his part in helping to make this all happen.
So here I am at 61 and taking full responsibility for my life and my business … for the very first time. “So what,” you may say. There are over 10,000 small businesses in Whatcom County alone, so I have lots of company. But there is a piece of Jungian “Shadow” here that I want to bring into the light.
In my 40 plus years in the computer industry, I have worked for many businesses as an employee and even more as a consultant. I have seen firsthand how dysfunctional most businesses can be and how easy it is to create a win-lose or lose-lose environment that de-motivates and discourages people. The pointy-haired manager in the Dilbert cartoons is someone I know way too well. I have even seen him in my bathroom mirror way too often.
Why is it that such a huge percentage of all businesses seem to be such toxic places to work?
I have been looking at this question for over 20 years now, and I freely admit that much of my interest (or even obsession) with this question goes way back to my family of origin. The difficulties I saw between my parents had a huge impact on me as a child, and I promised myself way back then that I would do everything I could to break this cycle of abuse that seems to infect so many families.
Noble as this goal was, I found countless ways to miss the mark and inflict my own personal form of spousal and parental craziness on my wife and children. But I kept working on myself, and slowly I made a deep shift.
I realized many years ago that I was wired with the belief that people with power will abuse that power. I need look no further than the evening news every night to see evidence of the truth of that belief. But I also learned that abusing power is a choice, often not a conscious choice, but a choice nonetheless. Power does not have to be abused, but abusing one’s power is often easier than using it wisely.
For me to break the chain of abuse, I had lots of work to do; and frankly, I was scared. I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.
In late 2001, I attended a weekend-long training put on by the Mankind Project called the “New Warrior Training Adventure.” During the training, I realized that my fear of stepping into leadership was a choice that was limiting my experience of life. I was always stepping halfway into leadership, but holding back a full commitment to take personal responsibility for the impact and consequences of my leadership. My fear of abusing power and hurting people limited me and kept me small.
As I have continued working on myself, my comfort zone has expanded and my leadership skills have grown. I now look at my mistakes and accept them without shaming myself. I know the difference between discernment which serves me, and judgment, which limits me. Most importantly, I learned to listen deeply to myself.
So now it’s time for some new tricks. I own 100 percent of my business and I am responsible for making all the choices and taking all of the consequences of those choices. Scary? You bet. But it’s also very empowering. At 61, I have learned that I can still learn and grow. I can still step into new challenges and even learn new tricks. Way cool. Arf!