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PACE: Leadership Lesson: Be like a duck
Rev. Lyn Pace, right, takes a selfie while kayaking with his son, Sam, on Lake Murray in South Carolina. - photo by Special to The News

For Father’s Day I was able to spend some time with my son kayaking on Lake Murray in South Carolina. Until now, he hasn’t ventured out in his own kayak on the big lake, but he decided to try it since later this summer we’ll have a vacation involving more kayaking. It can be a busy lake, but we went out early in the morning to avoid that. What we didn’t expect on a typical hot June day was how cool and breezy it was.

Getting to our destination was easy. The wind was to our back, the boat traffic was light, and he was not yet tired. We didn’t have anywhere we needed to be, so once we made it, we stopped and chatted for a while. I don’t remember talking about anything life altering, but it was a moment of peace without any other distractions I won’t soon forget. 

After what probably felt like a lifetime to him, we turned around and into the wind for the trip back. We weren’t that far away from home and had I been on my own, I wouldn’t have had a care in the world. But it was his first solo trip and the wind and boat traffic had picked up. 

When I was a child, my own parents and especially my father, were over-protective. I didn’t realize it so much then as I do now as I have observed my own parenting and especially the parenting of others. Even though I vowed not to be overprotective before having my child, I find it hard now for my son to take risks. I’ve ministered alongside parents who have lost children and that sense of loss and vulnerability is beyond belief. And yet, I’m aware of how important it is to allow our children to take risks to learn, grow, and gain independence.

To be in that kayak by myself watching my son’s skinny arms paddle as hard as they could was both terrifying and freeing. This is how parenting usually feels to me. There is no instruction manual and even if you are lucky to have wise mentors and guides along the way, you still must make hard decisions. This was a good decision, but the wind made me question it. All the scenarios of not being able to keep him safe as he drifts into the middle of the lake or not getting back home were playing over and over in my head.

Underneath the boat, I was metaphorically paddling like a duck’s legs under water. You know this about ducks, right? The actor, Michael Caine, popularized the image in his famous quotation, “Be a duck, remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.” Duck legs constantly move under the water as their body floats calmly above the water. I was proud of myself. I don’t think Sam had any idea I was as worried as I was. 

Being able to keep unnecessary worry out of an otherwise calm situation helps keep everyone afloat. The ability to know when to employ this skill is a mark of good leadership. 

Including in our life daily contemplative practices like yoga, journaling, breath prayers, visualization, and more hold the potential to improve our ability to do this. 

As we got closer to shore Sam asked me if I had been worried. “About what,” I asked. “I don’t know, getting back, I guess.” I had a decision in that moment. Keep it from him or let him in on my vulnerability. At that point, we had made it back, so I decided to tell him. “I wasn’t worried about getting back, but I was nervous about the wind and some of the boat traffic.” He thought for a moment and seemed to be taking in what I had to say. “Me too, I guess,” he said as he climbed out of the boat.

Leadership is also about telling the truth, which means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with those trusting us with their work, education, money, or life. 

Once Sam was on the shore, I decided to turn around and spend more time on the water. When I returned and it was just the two of us, my spouse asked me about the experience. “It was a journey of life lessons,” I said. “Happy Father’s Day!” she replied. “Indeed. I got to be a duck,” I said as I walked away with a smile.

The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford, Georgia with his spouse and nine-year-old.