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A Leadership Lesson on the Beach

By Christine Watkins Davies

As quickly as my toes hit the powdered sugar sand, I began to make a bee line for my favorite shelling spot. My family wanted to go swimming, but I had other plans.  I assured them I’d be back soon and began the walk to my kind of paradise.  Shell paradise.

I walked barefoot after flinging my sandals off. Turquoise salt water lapped at my toes, but I didn’t look at it. I was looking ahead with one goal in mind.  I wove my way around all of the annoying tourists and glanced at the scattered shells, coquinas burrowing under the sand behind the waves, and the occasional dead fish staring up at me, but I didn’t pause.  I’d been to this beach many times before and had found the motherload of shells straight ahead.  I was on a mission. As I neared my spot, I noticed many people gathered around.  I picked up the pace in order to get to my shells before they did.

By the time I got to my shell sanctuary, I was insanely hot. I decided to take a dip in the water after shelling to relieve the heat and celebrate. I left so quickly that I forgot my water bottle.  My shoulders were frying in the sun’s rays so close to the equator.  In my haste, I hadn’t even applied sunscreen.  I soon realized the people gathered near my spot weren’t looking for shells at all.  What luck!  They were watching a fever of stingrays swim near the shore.  I wouldn’t be swimming here after all, but I would be getting prime selection of shells. I savored the quiet whisper of the waves as I walked back and forth searching for a lettered olive, a conch, or the Mack Daddy of all shells, an intact sand dollar.

Nothing. I only found a smattering of broken shell pieces mixed in with sticks, sea grasses, and some rocks.  Where were my treasures I’d walked so far to find?  I had my eye on the prize, but the prize was gone.  I decided to turn around due to disappointment, stinging shoulders and a dry mouth.

My walk back was miserable. I walked a little slower and spent more time staring at the sparkling water and gathering a few small shells I’d missed in my haste.  I held my sad little treasures in my hand in a childlike manner since I had forgotten to grab a bag to store them in as well.  But, the water was spectacular and I quite enjoyed watching the little kids wearing crooked sun hats and digging with tiny shovels.

I finally reached our beach chairs and towels and stopped in my tracks.  I couldn’t believe what I saw.   A pile of BEAUTIFUL shells lie on the corner of our towel.

“Where did these shells come from?” I yelled out to my family splashing and laughing in the water.  They couldn’t hear over the waves and their own laughter.  I stared at the shells, then walked toward them while spraying myself down with SPF 50.  I stood with my toes in the ocean guzzling my now lukewarm water and felt something hit my feet.  As the sand settled, I looked down, threw my water bottle on my towel, and grasped two beautiful conch shells.  Perfectly intact and right here where I started.  Right here, where I missed fun with my family while mowing through tourists who were in my way to get to my goal.

I put the two conch shells in the pile on our towel and joined my family in the water.

“Aren’t the shells awesome?  They kind of rolled up and hit our feet when we were getting in right here.  I got six of them!” my daughter exclaimed as I approached.  “I knew you’d love them.”

I did love them.

You may be wondering what this story has to do with leadership.  I invite you to think about a time in your leadership journey where you moved too quickly toward a goal.  Perhaps taking an intentional pause could have prevented you from making a mistake with your “eye on the prize”.  Have there been any times in your career that you treated others around you merely as obstacles in your way?  Perhaps your interactions with colleagues or reports could have been more mindful.  When rushing toward your goal, you may have forgotten the importance of human connection and what it feels like to be supported by others and appreciated for more than your accomplishments. And lastly, when have you been so focused on what you already “knew” that you weren’t willing to pause, ask for help, or change plans?

When tensions are high and deadlines are looming, we are more apt to move quickly and be abrupt with others.  I was reminded of all of this on the beach that day. As I look at the conch shell on my desk, I know for certain I will make a better effort to be present and remember the shells that rolled up and hit my feet. The ones that were there all along with the people who were there to support me all along.