Previously

The viral video of Dr. Robert Kelly talking with the BBC about the impeachment of the South Korean leader, while in the background his 4 year old daughter comes waltzing into the room, followed by her brother in a rolling walker, is so incredibly delightful to watch, it has been played close to 23 million times.

I’ve continued to think about this video and its appeal. It wasn’t just delightful to watch “real life” interrupted by real life, but it made me think about the thin veils we hold up to partition off various parts of our lives, our selves.   We play so many different roles during our days – expert, father, instructor, assistant, husband, coach, mother, friend, brother, guide, wife, helper, leader…

While watching the video I couldn’t help but think about Dr. Kelly’s various roles and how he has built those roles through his many life experiences. All of the education he must have invested in to become an expert in South Korean affairs; the promotions and contacts he made to be the one who is called by the BBC when South Korea was facing a political crisis; and, as his wife came sliding into the room to extract the two children, I thought, previously, he fell in love, found a home, and started a family. All of that had to have happened before the moment when Kelly’s two kids decided to see what dad, not the South Korean expert, was doing. I loved thinking about all of those moments, about the sacrifices we make to build a life with others. And, the thing I couldn’t let go of was, why, as his role of expert was held forth, did getting a glimpse of his role as father and husband make me walk a little more lightly within my own path?

This act of thinking about what came previously to the moment of attention reminded me of a book titled, “Previously” by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Bruce Ingman. The book takes a rear view mirror look at what happened previously to familiar moments in nursery rhymes. The book’s refrains always begin with the word “previously”:

Previously…Goldilocks had been sleeping in somebody else’s bed, eating somebody else’s porridge and breaking somebody else’s chair! Previously…she had bumped into a hurtling and older boy named Jack. Previously…Jack had stolen a hen and was climbing down the beanstalk. Previously, while Jack and Jill were arguing over the free gift in the cornflakes box….

But, then, in a dreamy circular reminder everything has an origin story, everything has a beginning, the book ends.

Previously, Goldilocks herself, and Jack and Jill and all the others, even the little old man and the little old women had been tiny babies. And previously, all the bears were cubs and the frogs were tadpoles, and all the buckets and chairs and ballroom floors were planks of wood. And all the wood was trees in the dark woods. And the sun and the wind and the rain under the endless sky once upon a time, previously.

TC Roncey and I recently had the pleasure and privilege of presenting our ideas about leadership through the lens of children’s stories at a conference, causing me to pause and think about what came previously:

Previously, we talked once a week and wrote once a month, about leadership, life, and children’s books.
Previously, we celebrated Mardi Gras together and talked about capturing our ideas in writing.
Previously, my husband took a job transfer and we moved.
Previously, I presented workshops on early literacy.
Previously, I became a mother.
Previously, I left finance and went back to school to become a librarian. Previously, my father passed away.
Previously, TC Roncey and I met and began working together at a large non-profit.
…Once upon a time, previously.

Thinking about moments that happened previously, the ones that led you to a certain point in time, can bring about a greater sense of presence, of humility, in recognizing all those that came before you, all the forces that might have impacted the luck or tragedy of landing at a particular point in time.

I was touched by a recent interview with Valarie Smith, President of Swarthmore College, in the New York Times. When asked whether she had any favorite family expressions, she said, “My parents also raised us to never take our good fortune for granted or to be overly impressed with our own gifts, and to appreciate the fact that any success we had was the result of the sacrifices that people had made on our behalf.”

The act of thinking about what happened previously is an act of reflection. It can bring about a better understanding of the roles we carry, and perhaps, which of those roles might be combined to bring forth various sides of self, giving others a broader picture of what took place previously. However, sometimes, when leaders are compelled to think about what happened previously, there can be a sense of investigation or blame. Looking backward should be used as an important tool to understand the past with more clarity, as the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, acknowledged after a video was shared that wasn’t so delightful, he said, “It’s clear this video is a reflection of me – and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.”

For me, the BBC video served as my reminder, for just a split second, we all need to grow up and know the greatest roles we embody have been built through sacrifice. However we come to this reminder, whether through more moments of kids wandering into important meetings, or by others holding up a mirror, I think it’s an important one.

In the same Valarie Smith interview, she was asked, “Are there any surprises about the job of president?” She replied, “I knew intellectually that I would need to be on pretty much all the time, especially in a small college in a small town. The neighbors want to get to know you, and that’s really important and great. But what I did not expect is that the role of the president in a small, liberal arts college is often sort of an emotional, symbolic center as well. That means that when unexpected things happen in the community, people want me to say or write something that is intellectually appropriate but also heartfelt. They really want to know that the emotional center is authentic. I’m not sure I appreciated that before I started. I don’t mind it at all, though. It requires me to be my better or higher self.”

Dr. Kelly said he worried after the incident, wondering whether he’d ever get another call from the BBC after what happened. There’s no reason to worry Dr. Kelly, the phone will be ringing because previously, the world witnessed an interview with a man who has a very authentic emotional center, as well as an intellectual one.