Truck sign offers an impromptu lesson on leadership, parenting

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

The truck was huge, the largest and longest 18-wheeler my father had ever seen. As he attempted to pass this King Kong of the open road, he noticed a sign emblazoned on its side: “Do not push or tow.”

“Don’t worry,” my father later remarked. “There’s no way I would have ever tried either!”

There are many things in life one dare not push or tow, such as love, happiness, friendship, marriage, family, and just about every other major and wonderful experience life affords.

Of course, you cultivate all of the above, but that’s not the same thing as pushing or towing.

Maybe life and leadership had best forego any sort of pushing and towing, especially pushing. Papa Benfield, my father’s pastor-grandfather, once said, “Just remember, you can’t push a string, but take hold of it at the front and you can possibly lead it.”

In making his points, Papa often used a story or sound-bite-sized advice that was never preached nor applied in sermonic format. He did not push or tow; he simply stated the facts couched in story or analogy.

Such style impressed my father as a teenager who, like most teens, had his own big sign printed all over him, “Do not push or tow.”

There are just some things you don’t do. You don’t put your antique Model-T Ford in the Indy 500, as someone observed, unless you know a real good shortcut.

You can’t push or tow a child through adolescence either. There are no shortcuts. Parenting kids this age is a dynamic process where one minute you need to rein in their exuberant living and the next minute you need to gently nudge them to keep moving forward.

We may not be able to push or tow, but we can attempt to minimize the distractions and risks. And when we size up the situation, much like my father sized up that overgrown truck, we may realize the best move is to respect the circumstance and do nothing.

Sometimes our best action is observant inaction.

It’s easy, however, to over-step and try to protect our kids from failure.

As one teacher pointed out to an over-involved parent during a conference, “I’m not sure if your son is responsible. He hasn’t had the chance to prove it.”

If we aren’t careful, we can manage too closely, inducing confidence-draining, growth-stymieing dependence.

Indeed, some things will move without our intervention.

I do empathize, however, with the frustrated pastor who went down to the train tracks every day to watch the trains go by. When asked why he did this, he replied, “I just like to see something moving that I don’t have to push.”

Don’t we all!

Leadership, like parenting, can be exhausting — in both the doing, and in the ongoing decisions of what, if anything, to do.

There are many things that move without our pushing or towing. But learning how to lead without doing either is a constant challenge in family, the workplace, and community.