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  • John Chambers, PhD

Cracks in the Ice: Your Responsibility to Save the Day

If you’ve lived in the north, the March thaw couldn’t come soon enough. Where I grew up, it was usually in April. Prior to the “mud season” the melting snow patches and icy strips, especially on a sunny day, were woodland gifts to our senses: crystalline snow clusters morphing to water; icicles on gutters, dripping into tiny canals around the house perimeter; rushing cold streams as musical calls to spring. It was all quite beautiful, as my mother would remind, so long as you “keep your eyes and ears open!” She would worry about those falling stalactites. Mothers were always the keenest of risk managers.

In spite of a mother’s admonitions concerning icy spears, and her impatience that I read more of the children’s classics, I hadn’t read Hans Brinker, until later in life. Or to be more accurate, the entire title of the 1865 publication was Hans Brinker; or The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland. I guess author Mary Mapes Dodge wanted a title length that rivaled a scientific research paper, sort of like, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on…..” Anyway, Dodge’s story held a tale within a tale – the one about the boy with his finger in the dike. He was the “savior of Haarlem.”

That boy’s name was never mentioned in the story, and over time Hans Brinker’s name and the boy’s identity became interchangeable, sort of like the misattribution of “Frankenstein” as the monster instead of its creator. The “boy and the dike” legend was embraced especially in Holland, where in 1954, Dutch author Margreet Bruijn rewrote the story.

Honoring the legendary character, there are also several monuments in the Netherlands, reflecting on the boy's heroic altruism. The one in Spaarndam, created by sculptor Grada Rueb (1885 – 1972), shows the hunching boy sealing the dike’s clay, his head turned, as he seeks help. Its inscription (written in both Dutch and English) elicits a sense of community. It is a sense of belonging and of stewardship, a reflection of values and protecting a way of life, all by keepers of the future, the younger generation. At the harbor's edge, the inscription reads:

“Dedicated to our youth, to honor the boy who symbolizes the perpetual struggle of Holland against the water.”

Dodge’s novel is lovely imagery, lovely emotion. The 'little boy and the dike' episode actually takes place in autumn; it is about responsibility and vision, action and accountability.

[Spoiler Alert, since I know you’re all going to run now and download Hans Brinker immediately] the book has a happy ending, one of the more welcomed parts of children’s literature. Would that we had positive outcomes every day in our offices.

In less than a dozen sentences within two paragraphs, we glean the Dutch boy’s care, sensibility, pride and fulfillment of duty:

Eyes and Ears

“Just as he was bracing himself for a run, he was startled by the sound of trickling water…”

Our hero was walking home, in no hurry, and had the sense to enjoy the landscape around him. He also had the sense to listen. We often hear much in our offices, but we listen less.

Hearing is physical, but listening is our cognitive processing and our empathy, an ability to absorb the mundane sounds of our surroundings and notice the outliers. It’s a critical skill in every leader who guides a team, or who hosts a meeting. Sense when the discussion is veering off or something is amiss.


“Whence did it come? He looked up and saw a small hole in the dike through which a tiny stream was flowing…”

Finding minutiae in a complex business is difficult. Notice the details; seek the details. From gap analysis to process problem-solving, what are the exposures that contribute to lack of predictability? This is where your understanding and formalization of business processes pay dividends. When you speak to other employees, or leaders, an explanation of a process is often met with an impatient eye. It’s the “we already know all that” phenomenon. But the shared and visible understanding of processes is not as understood as you believe.

Spend time in cross-functional education and the sharing activities of the firm’s ecosystem.

Shared Value

“Any child in Holland will shudder at the thought of A LEAK IN THE DIKE! The boy understood the danger at a glance…”

Understanding hazard, whether small or large, is built into a culture. Any employee – rather, every employee, every supplier and participant in the firm’s value chain, requires the awareness of proximate cause and effect. This awareness of risk in an organization is an expectation of everyone. “Any” professional in the firm.

It’s everybody’s business.

Downstream Impact

“That little hole, if the water were allowed to trickle through, would soon be a large one, and a terrible inundation would be the result…”

Response and decision-making are built into our intellectual processing. Whether an error, a misalignment of strategy, or a tactical plan’s delay, oversights and defects will lead to a pesky nuisance or a “terrible inundation.” So which is it? Is it significant? Are we facing a recurring issue in the company? Can we live with the issue, or will it fester into serious impact to our bottom line or our team’s livelihoods?

Do we have an objectively defined view of priorities and risks?

A Time to Act

"Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. Throwing away his flowers, the boy clambered up the heights until he reached the hole…”

When a decision is made, act on it. Formalizing the long-term fix is preferable in a structured and robust environment but in some cases the luxury of time is impossible. Stop the bleeding, triage the impact response. Be fast.

But to reiterate the caveat; in addressing the most pressing issues or buying time on a problem, do not accept this as the optimal measure. Don’t forget about them. Our desk drawers are bulging with quick fixes and over time the culture becomes a run-through-the-hallway daily sprint.


“His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it…”

When we consider the innovative organization, creativity is built into the culture. It is not just a project. or an incubation lab, or a transformative design in a product. Innovation is a way of life. It is a behavior; hopefully like the boy's, it is instinctive. Innovation is pressing the firm to use everything within its ecosystem to address issues. Tools can be applied in a variety of ways. Techniques that were used in one department may be useful in another. Consider all angles. And instill the character trait into every colleague, peer and report.

Relishing Success, Local Hero

“The flowing was stopped! Ah! he thought, with a chuckle of boyish delight, the angry waters must stay back now! Haarlem shall not be drowned while I am here!”

In a successful project, a banner quarter, a perfect product launch, a customer recognition, don’t hesitate to rejoice in the moment. Moreover, the firm’s success is borne of every employee’s success; that is a victory. You are there and, consequently, the firm succeeds because of your presence.

The debugged code, or the contract win, or the clean floor, or the new design are the multitude of successes that help our customers and ourselves. Relish each success, but know that those successes are also expectations. They are why you work with the firm. You save the day, through your efforts.

Rewards from Within

Our rewards are presented in monetary currency, mostly. Currency pays the bills; there is no shame in our society when we seek compensation. The means of exchange is a driver and a representation of innovative productivity. Just never forget that the rewards also exist in our self-actualization. Maslow’s pyramid is comprised of a hierarchy of needs. Just because physiological attributes are at the most primitive, they are nevertheless facts of life. Making a living is fundamental. Just balance it with the knowledge that you are advancing a firm, advancing yourself. Find the attributes and offerings in the firm as a means to your self-actualization.

If you care as much as the little Dutch boy, you relish the chance to “save the day.” Will your company never fail if you are there? No, there is only so much one can do. But embrace the identity of the firm, and see the good that it does. Work "with" your firm. The firm is not your master. You do not work “for” the company. You work with it. And part of that company is you. Its services are you.

You may have been lucky enough to contribute to many firms and many teams throughout your career.

The robust firm, and the good life within, are built on a holistic view of its ecosystem and a thorough partnering with all groups in the value chain. All contributions are noble and supportive.

Enhance your sense of awareness and understanding of the company’s touchpoints.

Whether a leaky dam, cracking ice, or breakdowns in accountability, small fissures might be tell-tale signs of impending misfortune. Act on them.

You might be saving the day.

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