We tend to go through life with this default mindset that we’re prepared for whatever’s going to come our way. Then life drops us to our knees, and we realize that we weren’t prepared at all.
A few weeks ago I got a text message from my mom that my dad had a stroke. All I could do was think the worst. My mindset instantly changed and took me to the worst possible place, into that sympathetic state of fight, flight, or freeze.
I started to think of all the things that could be wrong at the most extreme level and was suddenly hyper-aware of the distance between my parents and me. When I got Mom on the phone, I was surprised at how calm she was, at how, even though she had witnessed my dad have the stroke, she had it together and was working the problem. She got the ambulance there. She got him to the hospital despite being in an extremely rural area. And she was able to fill me in on what was going on with impressive efficiency.
It was her mindset, her ability to stay calm, focused and in control, that saved his life.
The first few days were touch and go, but shortly thereafter, he leveled out and the doctors told us that he was going to survive. The TPA drug they administered had worked, but there was severe damage on the left side and he was looking down a long road of rehab to learn to walk and use his left arm again. We moved him to the rehabilitation center and then settled in to what we knew was going to be a challenging recovery, full of questions and uncertainty.
How was he going to handle this at his age? How was the fiercely independent guy going to handle all of this help? How is he going to adjust to a walker? What is this going to do to his mindset?
We got our answers real quick the next morning when he showed up in the rehab center, calling his left arm “Fred.” He had named his left arm. He was saying things like, “Fred’s really not acting like he’s part of the family right now. He’s kind of the black sheep.” He had us laughing at a time when we all really needed it.
Not long after that, he named his left leg “Poncho.” Poncho had his own identity and wasn’t really participating as he needed to either. The whole staff at the rehab center just fell in love with Dad, Every time dad would show up, they would ask how Poncho and Fred were doing and they would laugh and carry on and have these fantastic conversations. Because of that laughter, and the mindset that established, we could talk about the work that needed to be done dispassionately and with some humor.
At age 51, I thought I knew everything there was to know about courage. Not by my own courage, but by the men I served with and the things they showed me in battle. But in the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a different glimpse of courage. I saw my mom’s quiet courage when she confidently rose up to the occasion and saved her soulmate’s life. I had another glimpse at courage when my dad had this presence of mind to name his arm and leg. He made it okay for us to laugh, even though he was the one hurting.
Courage is a mindset that is available to all of us. It’s not reserved for firemen or Navy SEALs. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Rather, it’s cultivated out of love for the people we serve, the people we lead. We build that courage mindset in the good times when risk is low. We lead with it when the storm clouds roll in. That’s how Poncho and Fred do it.
Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com