The Cub Scout pack that I lead decided, for the first time, to hold a parents’ race at our recent Pinewood Derby. We did it as a fundraiser.
My car, while creative (I made it look like a rock), did not do very well in the race. I did not come in last, but I was not in the top half of finishers. I took it all right; about as well as other boys in the pack took their losses. One youngster beckoned me down to his level and said, with concern, “It’s hard to hide your tears, isn’t it?” He had lost a race a few heats before, and had almost cried. His simple kindness cleared my head.
My head did, indeed, need clearing, but not due to tears.
I have led this pack for about three years now. I do a pretty good job, if I say so myself. I know it’s not just me; we have a terrific group of parents. But I know they like me and think I am doing a good job, and generally feel secure in my exalted position. After all, it’s a task that few really want – perhaps I am odd; I recently signed on for another year.
In any event, my young friend’s words knocked me out of a tailspin of doubt. I had been thinking to myself, “Perhaps I should not have raced. My status is now diminished because of this loss.”
The power of this thought, its immediacy, and my inability to put it out of my head through my own efforts, all shook me.
If you had asked me the night before how I would feel if my car did not do well, I would have told you that I am a collaborative enough leader to be able to withstand something as silly as a model car-racing loss. If you had asked me even earlier, hypothetically, how a leader ought to approach a parents’ race for charity, I would have told you that a true leader would jump at the chance to sign up and would cheerlead for the cause, not caring a whit about how the standings turned out. And, I would have believed to my core that I would act as that kind of leader when it came to it.
But there I was, fretting. You really don’t know how you’ll react until something happens. It’s so easy to make decisions in the hypothetical. It’s even easy to imagine how you would behave in a given situation, but the truth is we really only know how we like to think we would behave.
I was shaken to realize how selfishly my thoughts had turned, and how quickly. Where was my collaborative leadership style? Where did this Great Santini, for whom winning was everything, come from? I know I should not be too hard on myself, for such thoughts are natural. But I will always remember how unlike my own view of myself they were.
As I watch the presidential debates and the candidate interviews, I can’t help but think how I would answer certain questions, how I would parry certain jabs. It baffles me why certain candidates don’t just say this, or that. But, my Cub Scout friend reminded me that it’s not me talking to Wolf Blitzer or Tim Russert and there’s really no saying what I would do under those circumstances. For all our self-satisfaction of how enlightened we are, the urge to self-preservation is strong.
I may disagree with what they say or how they say it, but my hat is off to the people who choose to run for office, and daily place themselves in situations that would turn most of us to jelly. I hope that some of them have the chance to meet people like my Cub Scout friend.
Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces an occasional videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.