Leadership During COVID-19 – ‘Stay at Home’ Order – A Parenting Opportunity

All states have issued some level of ‘Stay at Home’ guidance for social distancing thus putting all of us in an unfamiliar environment.  Under the famous category of ‘beware of what you ask for, you may get it’, we now spend twenty-four hours a day with our family.

As I was thinking about the situation and looking at our eleven-year-old son who had a birthday during this crisis, I decided to make part of this experience a positive memory for him.  Being together and spending dedicated time talking and listening is great, but why not build a bit of a ‘campaign’ plan into it, just like we should do with our companies. The questions were:  How could we structure it? What would be the key theme he would reflect on in the future?  My mind drifted back about 37 years to my Plebe Summer, a boot camp for freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Soon after arriving for my Induction Day in 1983, I realized life as I knew it was about to change forever.  It has become a significant reference point in time for me, ever since.

That thought focused me on the answer!  No matter how my wife and I react to COVID-19 this pandemic will be a particularly memorable event in our son’s life and that of his contemporaries. This will be an anchor point for much of what he learns going forward, not so much the event itself, but rather how life changed for him.  It also presents the opportunity to teach him about setting priorities and the discipline to carry them through.  Why not deliberately create a plan for our time together and introduce a positive component to his memory of the COVID-19 year?  Never being fans of reinventing the wheel, we decided to create a mini plebe summer for our son.  Wanting this to be a learning experience as well as a fond memory, some parts of the Navy package would need to be left out like the chow calls, bracing up, squaring corners and memorizing reams of Navy lore, to name a few.  I would be thrown out of the house pretty fast by an otherwise understanding wife if I recreated Bancroft Hall at 0630 every morning.  The Academy leadership had a well-orchestrated plan to mold smarter, leaner, more agile leaders in just two months.  Why not develop a similar, yet simpler plan for the ‘Stay at Home’ period.

The Academy curriculum focuses on mental and physical improvement. The physical fitness program for plebes wasn’t meant to create world class athletes, but it certainly raised the average physical capability of the summer regiment far above the average of their civilian contemporaries.  We decided to set achievable goals and re-evaluate them every two weeks.   The initial goal is two miles in less than 15 minutes and 100 pushups in less than three minutes.  As we started out on our first of many, two-mile runs, I could hear the decades old echoes of coach Heinz Lenz yelling, “Good morning 87, ninety second quarter pace”.  Coach Lenz’s memory brings a smile to the face of every former midshipman that did the pushups and wind sprints at his direction. He graced the Annapolis athletic fields for over 50 years. To keep things fun, we also have a time each day to throw the football as well as some design-build projects for the garden.

To work on the mental growth and keep it fun, our academic discussions needed structure too.  My wife has been fully engaged with our new home-schooling requirement, so academics are in good hands.  We needed something akin to the Academy’s military education to round things out.  The answer came in a game called Fortnite.  My son and his friends enjoy connecting on the internet to play this game, so it was a good potential fit.  I just had to learn the mechanics of attack, maneuver and defense in this new medium.  I’m pretty certain this game was designed by a Navy SEAL and not a fighter pilot as there is a lot of running, swimming and jumping out of helicopters, but absolutely no supersonic jets to whisk you away from the battlefield when ammo runs low.  While this might not work for everyone, it certainly presents opportunities to discuss tactics and strategy, precision versus area weapons, as well as things like descriptive versus directive communications.  It gives me a chance to live in his world for a short time each day as well as an opportunity to teach a little military history.  Movies like “Last of the Mohicans” and “1917” have also been useful in tying things together.

The COVID-19 lockdown has created a positive opportunity for parents to make a lasting impression in our children’s lives that will remain with them long after this pandemic is gone.  For us, it’s to make him smarter, stronger and faster, as well as to continue to build his self-confidence and self-perception. Making it a pivotal time in our son’s development and something he’ll tell his kids about is a fun goal.  There is no reason this model shouldn’t work for everyone.  The challenge is ours, we’ve all got the time, so instead of complaining about the forced hibernation, let’s make a difference that shapes a future.

87 Sir!

David Burnham, Commander USN (ret.)
Currently serving as CEO, CAVU-Intl.

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