Jim Mahoney is a national force in public education. Even in retirement he continually speaks to and inspires large groups. In his presentations he uses powerful stories to illustrate his points. Recently I asked Jim to share with me the most important story he has to tell. He wrestled with the notion and then shared the following. He says the story is the central metaphor of his life. I think we should each search for and deeply ponder our own most important story.
Embedded in Jim’s story is a second story. It is also worthy of deep consideration.
Red Brick Hill
As a child, I lived with my paternal grandmother in an area of our small town known as Boxtown. Some referred to the area as “the hill” because from the top you easily see most of the town below. One Saturday, when I was nine years old, my dad, who was visiting from the city where he worked as a machinist, took me to the Western Auto to purchase my first two-wheel bicycle. It was red and if I sat in the seat the tip toes of my feet would barely touch the ground keeping me balanced.
My dad let me ride it home, which was approximately a mile away. All was fine until I got to the bottom of “the hill,” which consisted of 600 feet of red brick followed by a left turn of another 150 feet before you reached our house and the top of the hill. My dad yelled from his car window, “Pedal hard, you can do this!” And so I started up the long red brick hill.
As each pedal on each side of the bicycle would reach its top height, I would push down hard for the other side to come up with just enough force to keep the bike moving forward. I was completely standing up pumping as hard as I could to make it up the hill that had a 45 degree angle. Each time, when I thought the bike was going to stop moving and fall sideways, I would push through another downward motion to keep the momentum going.
Out of breath and fully red-faced, I just kept going until I made the left turn and made it to the top of the hill. I was elated and tired when I made it to the front of my grandmother’s house. I had pumped my bicycle the entire red brick hill!
This singular event became a metaphor for every obstacle I ever had after that point. Though I couldn’t express it, born in that event was the notion that to develop confidence you need to successfully complete something hard.
Pumping the red brick hill was hard to do. And while I physically did it, my journey was helped more than a little by the encouraging, insisting, and supporting voice of my dad—“Keep going! Don’t stop now! C’mon, boy, you’re almost there.” That encouragement and support from him was always there.
Then and now, my life continues to be climbing yet another red brick hill. There were always obstacles, but support shows you how, encouragement says you can, and confidence comes from overcoming the challenge. But it started with the red brick hill.
The Second Story
Jim’s story is a story of resilience, of learning to live with grit. It is the most important metaphor in Jim’s life. Yet it is also a story about his father. It is the story of a transformational leader. Transformational leaders simultaneously challenge and support while followers grow and become. It should not be surprising that the direct reports of transformational leaders are transformational leaders. Jim’s dad, a machinist, was a transformational leader who produced a son who is a transformational leader.
- What story is the central metaphor of your life?
- Who in your life is most like Jim’s father?
- What could you do today to become more like Jim’s father?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?