In 2019 Dave Chappelle was honored with the Mark Twain Prize, an annual award given to comedians whose work has made a substantial impact on American society. During his acceptance speech, he remarked about doing (and being) something that one is not inclined to do (and be) to achieve one’s goals. While commenting about his process, he mentioned the sage advice he routinely received from his mother: “I was a soft kid. I was sensitive, I’d cry easy, and I would be scared to fistfight. My mother used to tell me this thing, ‘Son, sometimes you have to be a lion, so you can be the lamb you really are.’” I agree and would add that in some instances you have to play the part of the lamb (at least temporarily) so that you can eventually position yourself to be a lion—if that is what you truly want. It is as Steve Maraboli coaches his clients across a wide sector of industries, “Sometimes, you just have to play the role of a fool to fool the fool who think they are fooling you.” Along similar reasoning, Charles Dickens said, “The important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become.”
There is a known and sometimes borrowed refrain of the military, which draws on the idea that liberty and the pursuit of happiness afforded individuals on the land in which they live, work, and play are due to the blood of those who gave their life to the cause of freedom. Whether one aims to make people laugh for a living or is willing to lay down their life for their fellow countrymen, all of this is to suggest that to attain (and later sustain) a preferred reality requires a measure of conceding one’s former self for some greater pursuit. In the most superlative of service, those measures are taken for the benefit of others as the Greek proverb states: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” When it comes to working in the courts, thankfully, administrators are not faced with the grim possibility of having to surrender their life over the course of employment. And perhaps the sacrifices are not even so onerous as those brought to bear by the uncertainties and anxieties experienced by an aspiring comedian on a Thursday night open-mic session. But what does it take to be successful in a court organization? What price should the administrator be willing to pay for themselves and others to not only grow the grass, but make it Kentucky blue?
As I strolled up Toni’s front walkway and toward the rear yard, I noticed grass clippings scattered on and around the flagstone path. I found her sitting next to an aluminum bistro table beneath a wooden trellis she’d constructed several years earlier. All along the top and swirling up and down its four foundational pillars were grapevines of the Muscat variety. Apart from the seven-gallon demijohn of wine she would make from its annual harvest, the dense, pliant leaves created a makeshift canopy that shaded her during this late afternoon in August. She smiled at me as I made my way through the yard. “You picked a heck of a day to do yardwork. It’s blistering out,” I said, as I picked a grape from one of the protruding vines rubbed it against my t-shirt and popped it into my mouth.
“I agree with you, but I had to treat the lawn today because the rest of my week is entirely booked. I’ve made us a cold pitcher of white tea with raspberry and chrysanthemum, but don’t sit down just yet. I need your help putting the thatch and weeds I collected in the wheelbarrow into a trash bag so that I can bring it to the compost center later.”
“No problem—happy to help.” We walked over to where she had positioned the cart.
“Here, put these on,” she said tossing me a pair of gardening gloves. She held the bag open while I placed large handfuls of brush into it—enough to fill all 25 gallons of it. As I pressed the thicket down into the bag, grabbing the two ends and began to make a knot, Toni placed the tiller, compost fork, and a set of gardening hand tools that were alongside the perimeter fence of the driveway into the wheelbarrow. I lifted the bag into the rear of her pickup truck while she began to wheel the tools back into the rear yard. I quickly caught her before she took more than a step or two, “I’ll take it Toni—just let me know where you’d like me to put them.”
“Thank you—just wheel everything as is into the shed. I’ll put everything away when I get a minute.”
I shut the door of the shed and walked back across her lawn, admiring its crosscut evenness and vibrant color that I had not previously noticed. She retreated beneath the arbor and poured me a glass of the tea. As I sat down across from her, she gave me a review, “It’s delicate but flavorful. I taste more of the raspberry than the chrysanthemum in the blend, but it’s not bad.”
I took a sip and agreed, “My tastebuds give it a 70-30 so it’s certainly more potent on the raspberry.”
“I give it more like a 90-10, but your palate may be better than mine.”
I took another sip, savored it a bit more, “Nah. 10 percent is only a hint—I’m picking up more than that. In either case, it’s a good balance like a warm, sunny day without the humidity.”
“True. Speaking of balance, I never paid much mind to it, but I like how you’ve manicured the grounds around the house. I was admiring the colors and patterns of the petunias you planted. The flower beds complement the hardscape perfectly.”
“Thank you. It’s good that you’re noticing some of the details of this work.”
“Your gardening tools have seen better days though, especially that wheelbarrow. The rusty axle made it nearly impossible to roll it back into the shed. The tools are in better shape, but barely.”
“I’d say the wheelbarrow is on its last leg, but it only has that one wheel. I inherited all that stuff from my dad, so I’m a bit attached to them.”
“I’m sorry Toni – I didn’t mean to . . . ”
“No—don’t be. He too had a green thumb and taught me practically everything I know about gardening. After he passed, I decided to keep most of what he had so I guess someone else can decide what they’ll give them away for at my estate sale,” she said with a chuckle.
“That’s pretty morbid.”
“A little, but it’s also logical, wouldn’t you say?”
“It has a 70-30 dismal feel to it.”
“Ha—so not a good balance at all,” she laughed.
“But I give you credit. Between the flowers, garden, lawn, this small vineyard you got going on here—it’s quite impressive. I can’t even keep the small money tree in my office alive. I just don’t have any luck managing these things, so I don’t bother to try.”
“How much luck is there in managing people?” she asked.
“Well, there’s luck in everything.”
“Agreed—but do you think that you can augment your luck with greater amounts of work and preparation? In other words, could you get better at managing people if you made a commitment to do so?”
“If you were willing to put the days, months, and even years in and the opportunity presented itself, you could probably become a great manager and not just a good one.”
“Probably—but no guarantee. And if you didn’t have the opportunity, you could probably put the hours in to finding or creating those prospects that may not have been obvious or available.”
“Probably. In theory you’re correct, but in reality, it depends on how much being a good manager means to you.”
“Why?” she asked with a smirk, knowing what I was going to say next.
“Because that would determine how much time and energy you’re willing to commit.”
“Precisely. The same principle applies to lawncare, planting a garden, being a good manager, or just about anything you decide you’d like to do. Basically, how much pain are you willing to endure for the chance to succeed?”
“Yes—there’s pain whether you do it or not. The question really is what kind of pain you would prefer to experience. You go to the gym regularly, correct?”
“Okay—you make the effort to go not necessarily because you enjoy it. I’m sure that you’d much rather watch television, sleep-in that morning, catch up with a friend, whatever else instead of going. But maintaining your health so that you can live the life you imagined motivates you enough to make the sacrifice of exercising. There’s pain in that sacrifice. Well, there’s also pain in not doing what is presently the more difficult choice. Would you rather endure the hardships and inconvenience that accompany an exercise regimen or the results that are often tied to living an unhealthy lifestyle?”
“So, making a choice based on what motivates you more,” I concluded.
“Pain will test the strength of that motivation. The same applies to other decision making in your professional and personal life. I’m fairly certain you could grow a houseplant if you were sufficiently motivated to do so and were willing to put in the time. The caveat, of course, is that even if you give 100 percent, you may still fail despite those efforts. Of course, that’s the only chance you have at possibly succeeding. All you can do is give it everything you’ve got and try.”
“Okay—but I think you’re underestimating how much ‘right place, right time’ and access to the right people has to do with it.”
“No—I’ve acknowledged that there’s an element of luck, but you can’t use that as an excuse to not try and get to that right place, seek out the right people, and be on time when you do. If you’re lucky, you’re given the freedom to pursue—there’s no guarantee on the results of that pursuit. I’ve lived in places where you didn’t even have that and whatever few options you did have involved life-altering sacrifices.”
“But it worked out in the end.”
“I’d say that it did, but you’re seeing and talking to me at the end of this process and not at the beginning or during that quest with all the peaks and valleys that one inevitably faces. In life, if you want to spend a greater proportion of your time doing what you are most passionate about, then you have to be willing to work hard for it. There’s an irony to it, I realize, because this requires that you need to give up a great deal to ultimately do what you’d like. But that’s part of the process.”
“Knowing all that though, you’d still make the decisions that took you thousands of miles away from your family and everything you were accustomed to?” I asked.
“Even if I failed, I’d say yes because all I ever wanted was the opportunity to change my story.”
“Essentially failing on your own terms,” I deduced.
“Yes—I recognized early on that if I worked and sacrificed all that I could because there was a chance to succeed, but still failed, I’d have no regrets. To really achieve something means to endure a commensurate measure of pain—there’s no escaping that. The question for you, which only you can answer, is how far are you willing to go to reap the rewards of greener pastures that you’ve set for yourself?”
It is human nature to spend some time peering over the fence and thinking about the greenness of the Joneses’ grass. If we are not careful, however, it can lead to a sense of entitlement (my grass should just be green) and envy (my grass should be as green as the Joneses’), which can distort thinking and distract focus. Look no further than Instagram and one finds a meme to thwart those ill feelings: The grass is greener where you water it. But what if one does not have the benefit of any water, a sprinkler system, or irrigation specialist? Under those circumstances, Toni would say that if growing (and maintaining) a green lawn is of considerable importance to you, then work to dig for a well until you strike the water table, get yourself an appropriate length hose that attaches to an oscillating sprinkler, and do your research on pH levels, turf-type, mowing techniques, fertilizer, soil nutrients, and weed control.
When I consider Toni’s conception involving the basic tenets of realizing one’s ambition, I am reminded of another meme I once saw (it may have been on Facebook). It was labeled “Success as an Iceberg” and it depicted two parts of the ice mass—the part above water, noted as “what people see,” included depictions of “awards and accolades,” and the larger portion below the water line, specified as “what people don’t see,” showed a series of word-association images for “persistence, dedication, failure, hard work, discipline, disappointment, and sacrifice.” What struck me was the universal truth about any journey where one seeks to become a better version of themselves. It is, in fact, a process, which requires a great many things, but chief among them is sacrifice. Aspiring managers, thus, benefit from thinking through all the pros and cons before deciding whether a certain course of action is “worth it.” In his article, “The Price of Success: What It Actually Takes to Achieve a Goal,” Adam Sicinski provides readers with a roadmap should they decide to take that treacherous excursion of sacrificing who they once were to reach a higher plane. He provides an intriguing five-step process: 1) Clarify what you want, 2) Clarify action steps, 3) Consider impact of goal, 4) Consider possible changes, and 5) Make the necessary sacrifices. Each stage is accompanied by a series of compelling questions that must be answered candidly before moving on to the subsequent stage, some of which include: Why do I want this? What specifically do I need to attain this goal? How could it potentially impact many different areas of my life? How must I change as a person in order to make room for this goal? Am I willing to make these sacrifices to obtain this goal?
For those who have given themselves to a passion and remained committed, the costs of success are felt acutely in the form of self-doubt, discouragement from those “outside the arena,” disintegration of personal and professional relationships, and intermittent failure. Thus, any attempt to attain a preferred outcome is often a painful ordeal, and yet there are consequences for convenient inaction as well. Regret, discontent, and career inertia are just a few of the more obvious things that manifest from an unwillingness to absorb the psychological and physical costs that adjoin ambition. On the whole, sacrifices that are made entirely for others—the reward being only in seeing someone else having the opportunity to thrive—are perhaps the most important of acts as the Greeks portended some time ago. A successful court administrator (who is also honest) will acknowledge the sacrifices of others who enabled them to a greater or lesser extent to accomplish a set of goals. Personally, and while this admission may not amount to more than a simple platitude, I am indebted to the efforts of those past and present without whom I would have almost certainly succumbed to the pain of my own pursuits to achieve some end. To unearth what success entails requires only some experience with its process. Do a little digging and one will find that beneath all those green, beautifully thick, and lush blades of grass, the crowns are rooted in soil that is red, some of which is tinted by the sacrifices of not just their own. Lucky them.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.