Becoming A Decisive Leader – Lessons from Playing in the Ditch

“Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.” --Aristotle

This quote is timely and true. For most of us the best and worst of our professional and personal lives have probably been hitched to our right decisions and defining failures.

I’ve gleaned insight on both situations from one of my favorite childhood experiences, involving fun, making choices, playing in the ditch.

Let’s just go across.” “I bet you can’t make it.”  “Jump!”

A two-foot deep ditch ran parallel to the house I grew up in my hometown of Waverly, Virginia. On the other side of the ditch was the entrance into the woods that my playmates and I ventured into for our jaunts of discovery. Normally we would just hop across this divide and head out to explore the woods for the day, but we also loved when it rained because the ditch then filled with water—inventing for us another choice for some fun.

Instead of going into the woods we’d just jump back and forth across the ditch. The game was to see who could make it without falling down the embankment into the water. Sometimes the jumper would get bold and make running leaps across the ditch. This action presented more of a challenging risk. The other element of fun was that whoever wasn’t jumping could ‘egg you on,’ creating either an annoyance or a cheer. Weighing the pros and cons we knew once we jumped we couldn’t change our mind mid-stream, so to speak. One of us occasionally misgauged the distance, our ability or got distracted and fell in the water-swollen ditch. Then you were left to deal with the wet and muddy consequences. You also knew that a whipping from one of the adults might be awaiting you when you slogged back into the house—for getting your clothes and the floor dirty.

When the water level in the ditch was high and we didn’t want to play the jumping game, there was another choice for us to get into the woods. My grandfather gave us long boards to lie across the banks so we could still go on to play. We didn’t always have to jump across. The source of our fun was up to us for that moment— jump or just go.

There were some questions for us to consider. What was our immediate priority? How did we want to enjoy our time? Where was our consequence quotient needle pointing?

We face these same questions as adults. As we journey on in time, we’re provided with different options at critical points. What we choose follows us throughout our lives, showing up in successes or setbacks in our careers, family, relationships or faith.

This list sometimes changes minute by minute. Acts of our lives play out in ways we are pleased with at times or not so happy with at other times. The decisions we’ve made chart our moments of sacrifice or indulgence and how they ultimately line up with what’s important to us —our values. Additionally, the status of the economy and other societal or personal issues will at times dictate our steps and determine how fast we have to move on any dilemmas that are before us.

When I attended Army Officer Candidate School in 1979, during one of the leadership exercises, a tactical offer yelled in my face, “Make a decision candidate, right or wrong, make one…”

What did he mean?

Act in the moment. Be aware of the critical data that’s available to do what is necessary when it’s necessary while assessing advantages and disadvantages of the action. “Your or your buddy’s survival might depend on it, Candidate Parker!”

There are instances when we will have time to decide and other times when a sense of urgency demands an instant commitment—right or wrong, good or bad.

Will our decisions stand or fall?

In leadership roles from my work, family and community, there’ve been times I’ve fallen in deep based on bad choices and came out covered with consequences I thought I’d never recover from. I’ve made good leaps that sent me to unimagined benefits.

All of our choices don’t come out as we’d like. Obscurities can make us reluctant and unsure, but sometimes we have to take the plunge. And know if we have a back-up plan.

The planks of confidence await—to keep us steady in deciding.


Excerpted from my motivational autobiography, Navigating Life’s Roadways: Stories of Insight from My Odyssey and Inspiration for Your Journey

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