Do You Know the Way Home?


I recently trained a group of early childhood professionals on new standards designed to raise the quality of early childhood education.  At the start of the session I asked the attendees why they thought lawmakers were enacting these new standards or rules and someone quickly shouted out, “to drive us crazy!”   There was a knowing laugh among her colleagues, which led to a very passionate discussion about the divide between those who make the rules and those who are hired to follow them.

When rules feel like they are delivered from on high, without explanation or intent and not created by “us”, then they can cause a great deal of anxiety among those who are hired and required to follow them. Professionals can be made to feel as though they should not ask questions, to simply accept, and if they do not follow, well, then, let’s see, for some rules, the war might start, a life might be lost, or the planet may suffer….but for most rules….well, what would happen if they weren’t followed?! We are not quite sure, except, suffice to say, no one wants to find out!

Leaders, as such, have followers, either willing or paid, who quite often, are not in a position to question the castle authorities. But yet, we, as leaders say, we want thinkers – those who will question, those who will ask, “why?”, those who will be curious enough to bang on the castle gates. Leaders know that it’s valuable to have those around us who will speak truth to power, to ensure we do not chart a path into an echo chamber of ideas.

In education there is a growing chorus of words used by lawmakers, administrators, teachers and parents to describe the traits we want to inspire in our children – creative and critical thinkers, inspired learners, flexible and adaptable decision makers to our fast-paced, ever-changing world. We believe that by the time our young ones become young adults, these are the traits they will need in order to address the problems of the future, to find innovative solutions to issues of poverty, climate change, and war.

In order to chart the course toward our vision we, as leaders, want to define how we get there, what rules we need to follow in order to enter the promise land, the land of bounty, peace, and order. So we make rules. Rules for safety, rules for order, rules for health, rules for, well, everything! We love rules! While this is a grand and noble vision, in many places, the reality on the ground is of another sort – how to follow the rules so the tornado doesn’t hit or the plan is not ruined. I believe we often forget how rules feel to those whom they are put upon to follow. How can leaders mind the gap between a rule’s intent upon improving our world and how a rule feels when it’s enacted and enforced, which can undermine that intent?

Shaun Tan released a book in 2013 titled, “Rules of Summer.” I was immediately struck by the power of this book because it seems to tap into this idea of how rules can sometimes feel, brilliantly illustrating this gap. I’ve been using this book as a lens in which to view the rules around me, those I’m supporting, (by following), those I’m questioning, (by asking and researching), and those I’m in defiance of, (by simply being angry), unsure of whether to follow or not, wondering whether a giant red-eyed, red-fur rabbit will be unleashed upon my city to punish my defiance!

I have shared this book with many adults and most end the book with a quixotic expression, unsure about what they just read, muttering something along the lines of – “It seems a little…..dark, doesn’t it?” ending their rhetorical question with a raised pitch, hoping for some understanding of where all the cupcakes and rainbows of childhood vanished. If this was your reaction, I can only encourage you to….read again.

The book’s journey begins with the rule, “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” This rule is the only text on one side of the page, relatively small in comparison to the illustration on the opposite page, showing two young boys, one a few years older than the other, huddled together in the corner of a yard, the older boy with his hand over the younger one’s mouth. There is a fence around the yard and you can see a portion of the urban yards nearby with an alleyway in between. In the yard there is a clothesline, and on that clothesline there is one red sock. As the boys sit huddled in the yard against the fence, just on the other side, coming down the alley, is a giant, red-eyed, red-fur, menacing looking rabbit, whose red-eye is just at a height to see over the fence where the red sock hangs. Rules_RabbitAnd, if that isn’t enough, there is a black crow, the keeper of sacred laws, standing in the yard of the boys, looking on, ready to sound the alarm that a rule has been broken.

The book continues in this manner, illustrating the “never” rules with fantastical outcomes, “Never leave the back door open overnight.” “Never step on a snail.” “Never ruin a perfect plan.” Then, as the crows gather in numbers, the rules begin to directly affect the young boy, not just showing the outcomes of his actions. The illustration for “Never lose a fight,” shows the older boy holding a rope in one hand that is tied to the waist of the younger boy, his other hand extended in front of him, reaching to receive a golden crow brought to him by a black crow. Dozens of black crows stand watching as he is given the crown, donning him with the apparent authority to lock the young boy in an isolation chamber.

The rules, “Never wait for an apology,” “Never ask for a reason,” come next. Once these rules are given, the illustrations grow grey, the city begins to be covered with what looks like blowing dust, as the young boy’s isolation chamber grows smaller and smaller. Then, the rules change in tone, ”Always bring bolt cutters.” The older boy, riding up on a bicycle is holding bolt cutters held high above his head. Rules_CrowsThe next rule, “Always know the way home.”   The older and younger boy ride together on a bicycle through a deserted, fossil filled, almost war-torn looking waste land till they both climb a tall ladder out of the place, one lending a hand to the other, entering into a glorious land of bright fruit, pies, and flowers, while marching with instruments to the rule, “Never miss the last day of summer.”

Symbolically, crows are seen as messengers and can provide guidance as to what your next steps should be. The crow reminds us to pay attention to our own thoughts, to assess where we are, to be clear about our intentions. The crows in this story allowed me to stop and pay attention. They allowed me to see rules from a different angle, asking myself, how can leaders create a culture where those who make the rules also know how they feel?

When the crow hands you the leadership crown, how can you be sure to listen, observe and understand which rules you are to uphold, model, enforce, which rules you are to revise, refine or eliminate, and which rules will always lead you, and those who work for you, home? “The Rules of Summer”, along with the 9 year old next door who sits in the tree outside my house many mornings cawing like a crow, have helped me pay attention to the daily work around me, noticing if someone forgets the password, ruins the plan, drops the jar, or eats the last olive at the party, whether myself or another is inspired to lend a hand and help them back home.

Are there those around you who feel frustrated that others are not seeing their talents, scared that another may take their place, or afraid of being left alone in isolation? Are your rules supporting someone, bigger or smaller, to find bolt cutters when needed and know the path back to the mission or goal, so that each person who leads or follows never misses the last day of summer?

By looking to the intent or purpose for which rules are created, leaders and followers can find ways to recover, forgive, and support when rules are misunderstood or broken, causing feelings of uncertainty, powerlessness, and discontent. For those in my training that day it helped to reflect upon a particular rule’s intent, to remember that those who write the rules, and those who are hired to follow them, can be united in purpose, if not always in agreement on rule verbiage.

When you are handed the leadership crown, look for the crow, examine the rules that govern your cause, your product, your service and ask yourself –

do you know the way home?