I’ve often told this story to highlight how a particular approach can appear outstanding in one setting and something different in another one. When I served as the county school superintendent, our offices were in a three-story, expansive government building housing several agencies, with an adjoining parking lot for staff and visitors. There was a large second floor training room that, when used by visitors, resulted in a full parking lot. If you weren’t there before training, finding a parking spot was a challenge.
One morning I had attended a meeting and arrived at the office shortly before 10:00 am for another meeting. There was a training, but I finally created a parking spot for my black car near a dumpster but away from any designated parking spots that were all filled with cars. I liked that I had found such a good spot reckoning it wouldn’t block any vehicles and was out of the way. Downright creative. Fast forward eight hours. I emerge from the building walking next to an unknown staff member from a different agency. I had forgotten my black car which now looked quite curious in a nearly deserted parking lot sticking out and removed from many empty spots. I saw the young man looking at my car. I asked him, “why do you suppose someone would park a car like that?” His answer came quick, “drunk or stupid!”. I didn’t tell him it was my car and stood at the edge of the sidewalk quietly laughing to myself until he departed. So, at 10:00 am the spot was creative and now at 6:00 pm it was viewed as something entirely different.
Think of COVID and how our daily work activities have been changed. A school superintendent recently remarked to me that he couldn’t ever imagine school in the future without a virtual component. I’m betting pre virus that spending district money on developing a total remote program might have looked wasteful. Now, it looks essential. Anybody think that all office workers will ever return to the office? How about entrepreneurs who pivoted their workforce to create new products? Opportunities, threats, and leadership in one environment can change quickly when a new environment requires or invites it.
Consider another example recently sermonized by a young minister (Lawrence Bartel) when he outlined an environment change in my former SE Ohio neck of the woods, south of Zanesville. He described the introduction of “Big Muskie” into the area, which was called at the time one of the engineering marvels of the world. I can well remember it. The Big Muskie was the world’s largest dragline excavator, standing 22 stories high, weighing 27 million pounds, and operating a bucket that could park 2 Greyhound buses or house an eight lane highway. The mobile strip-mining device was used to move earth beginning in 1969 and, in its’ 22 years of operation in SE Ohio, it moved twice the amount of dirt moved in building the Panama Canal. One scoop of dirt created the equivalent of a two-story house. Environmental concerns, rising electric costs, and less demand for high sulfur coal all contributed to its demise in the early 1990’s. The metal was scrapped, and the bucket moved to a newly created Miner’s Memorial Park where coal miners, including those who lost their lives working on the job, were honored.
And what of the thousands of acres of land that had been stripped by the Big Muskie? 10,000 acres of some of the reclaimed land became the site of another context, another leadership vision. In the 1990’s this area became known as “The Wilds”, a new wildlife park. Today, The Wilds is a private, non-profit safari park and conservation center. It’s the largest conservation center in North America concentrating on conservation education, land stewardship, and creative approaches to animal management. Housing hundreds of animals, including rare and endangered species, The Wilds also sports hiking trails, a designated Audubon birding area, and once in a lifetime adventures for its’ many visitors. It has become an important tourist and education site.
Context does matter. And so does leadership that is bold enough, visionary enough, and skilled enough to guide people through it. Our future is unknown but essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he wrote of his times and perhaps of ours today unknowingly in this line, “This time, like all times is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”