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Jim McKenzie: Leaders, Not Lemmings

By: Jim McKenzie

There was a great commercial out by FedEx a few years ago that I think is absolutely hilarious. A company leader is giving a seminar to his employees. Here’s the script (or search for it on Youtube).

Trainer (holding a lemming in his hands): “Does everyone know what this is?”
Team Members (uncertain): “No.”
Trainer“Well, it’s a lemming. From now on, we’re not going to be lemmings, we’re going to be leaders.”
Trainer (sees FedEx delivery guy enter): “Here’s a good example. We switched to FedEx Ground which has the fastest service to the most businesses in the US.”
Trainer (calling on individuals): So, Jim, what are we?
TrainerYes! Nancy, what are we?
Nancy (proudly): Leaders!
Trainer (he is bitten by the lemming and drops it to the floor): Yeah.… Oww…
[The lemming rushes off and the entire group immediately falls to the floor and frantically scurries after it on all fours.]
Delivery Guy (reassuredly): It’s a process.

As I watch that commercial, I can’t help but laugh and think – that’s pretty much the plight of every parent. Because when it comes right down to it, there are only two kinds of kids that we can raise – leaders or lemmings. Those who will chart the course and those who will follow.

American culture offers our children many lemmings to choose from. But unlike the furry little rodent in the commercial, today’s culture has cleverly disguised them in the many worldviews on parade in our generation. The trap is more deceptive, the temptation to follow is more alluring.

Jesus said to “enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

Our children will never enter by the narrow gate if they follow the lemmings of their generation down the wide road.

As I watch the commercial unfold, I see a well-intentioned company trainer. But he makes the same two mistakes that we can make as parents:

1. Instruction in what not to be isn’t enough. Telling a man how not to build a house, isn’t going to help him get it done. He needs blueprints, instructions, and a plan. While there are times when what not to do is sufficient (don’t touch – it’s hot), more often than not, it won’t suffice, particularly as kids grow older. In Do Hard Things, Alex & Brett Harris challenge teens to be known for what they do, not for what they don’t do. That should be our emphasis too.

2. There is a big difference between “telling” and “teaching.” As a first-year teacher in fifth grade many years ago, I made the common mistake of telling my students about the classroom procedures (sharpening pencils, turning in assignments, etc.). I was greatly frustrated at how unsuccessful the students were at following these procedures. The second year, I spent the first six weeks of school teaching the procedures to the students. The result? A well-run, orderly classroom for the remainder of the year.

As parents, there is wisdom in our words. No doubt. But telling our kids to use good manners doesn’t teach them how to act in a restaurant (something I must keep reminding myself of when I’m out with my kids!) Telling our teens to dress modestly doesn’t teach them what that looks like. And telling them to be a leader doesn’t teach them how to become one.

The root of the word discipline is disciple, which means “follower.” When we discipline our children we are seeking to make them followers – followers of us, followers of The Way. Discipline is different than punishment. Punishment does not create disciples. If it did, our prisons would not see such a high rate of repeat offenders.

Discipline is the process of teaching the expected behavior, allowing time for the behavior to be learned and mastered, and then introducing a consequence as needed to reinforce the expected behavior.

Like the commercial, we may watch our kids nod enthusiastically and parrot back the right answer, only to watch them fall back in with the crowd again.

As we strive to create leaders (and not lemmings), let us not grow weary in our efforts to discipline. The cultural battle is strong and at times our kids may seem caught in a spiritual tug-of-war. But the Bible offers us this promise: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Or, as the wise FedEx delivery driver would remind us, “It’s a process.”

The Rock School