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The Ice Cube Tray and Leadership

November 13, 2013

Ice Cube Tray and LeadershipThe facilitator of a group to which I belong asked a question, “What incident or event from your past shapes you as the leader you are today?” Of course the first thing that passed through my mind was “how and where am I being a leader today?” We all have many roles in life and not all roles are leadership roles. After a while, I managed to focus on the real question. However, narrowing the question down did not make it easy to answer. There are and have been lots of events, people, role models, coaches and mentors in my life. They all contribute to who I am as a person, as a coach and as a leader.

I thought about my Fundamental Organizing Principles and settled on Self-Awareness which leads to Life Long Learning. Where did that come from? Eventually I remembered an event that must have happened at the end of junior high-school or perhaps the beginning of high-school. The science teacher challenged us to answer a question: “Does hot water freeze faster than cold water?” I thought for a few minutes and said, “No. Of course not. The hot water will take time to cool down to reach the same temperature as the cold water and then they will both take the same amount of time to freeze from that point on. Therefore, the hot water will obviously take longer to freeze than the cold water.” “Are you sure?” the teacher asked? Uh Oh! When the teacher asks you that question, a student smells a trap! “Pretty sure,” I equivocated. “How would you test that theory?” was the teacher’s response. “Um. Fill two ice cube trays, one with hot water and another with cold water. Put them both in the freezer and see which one freezes first?” I suggested.

Well there was a lot of discussion about how often to check progress, how close the freezing points might be in time, will things really be equal, etc. I went home and as I recall, told my father that I was going to find out if hot water freezes faster than cold water. I can’t ask my father how he recalls the conversation going (he died earlier this year) so I have to go by my own recollection. I remember him saying that he didn’t think the hot water would freeze faster for the same reasons I had stated. My father had finished high school, but the war, financial needs and other circumstances kept him from higher education. And I, like many teenagers, believed my teachers and friends were smarter than my parents! Nothing changes, eh? As I recall though, my father went on to say, “But you aren’t considering everything. What about the frost in the freezer that acts like an insulator from the cooling coils? Will the warm water melt through the frost and therefore put the warmer tray closer to the cooling coils? How about when you open the door? Which tray is closer to the outside warmer air and will that change your experiment? The hot water may freeze faster for different reasons other than simple temperature.” Smart man! Oodles of common sense, and willing to think for himself.

What I got from that event was not a definitive answer to the question. I learned something much more important and useful. (In case you’re wondering, the answer is not at all obvious or intuitive.) What I got from that event was 1.) Don’t ever prejudge the intelligence (one way or the other!) of another person, especially your parents. 2.) Don’t confuse being smart with having good data on a particular subject. And 3.) don’t take important things at face value. Check your own beliefs and assumptions. Check other people’s assumptions and beliefs. Be forever curious. This ice cube tray lesson has proven to serve me well throughout my career. It can also be a trap allowing me to get lost in analysis paralysis if I’m not careful. It can also cause others to see me as a bit argumentative since I will often question their declarative statements. I am learning to be vigilant and training myself to let only the important issues become the subject of my scrutiny.

I’m still thinking through other events that shape the person I am today. This is a good and challenging process. How about you? I wonder if you are brave enough to start one of your leadership meetings with a question like this one. I tried that with a group I facilitate and it was not only well received but very enlightening to the members. They now know each other at a much deeper level than before. Leadership means always pushing on your own growing edges. Developing leaders means helping them do the same. Many times: To question is the answer.

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