Follow the Footprints


The river was just a short walk from their house. The family had learned early to keep a watchful eye on their four-year-old toddler–keenly aware that the river could deliver a horrible end at any moment.

On one particularly hot summer day, the toddler escaped the eye of his mother. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him. Dreadful thoughts began to flood her mind. Immediately, she ran out the front door of the house and began frantically looking for some sign of him on the ground.

“Footprints,” she thought. “Where are his footprints?”

In North Louisiana, even near the river, the grass didn’t grow very well, so dusty ground was almost always present.

Finally, she found signs of little feet…headed right toward the river. Panic filled her mind. Her heart raced as she followed the tracks, one by one.

Then she saw him. He was sitting under a tree with his dad. That toddler was my dad and he had left the house without telling his mom.

Instead, he had decided to simply go to the fields and see his dad – my grandfather – without her knowledge or consent.

Her fear melted into relief, and then, maternal resolve. Without hesitation, she broke off a small branch from the tree and hurriedly plucked off all the leaves.

“Young man, get up from there!”

My grandfather looked at his wife and said, “Pauline, what’s the problem?”
“Junior left the house without telling me. I thought he went to the river, and he could have drowned.”

From that tree all the way to the front door of their shanty house, a switch would cross his legs. With each swing of the branch, my grandmother would say, “If you ever leave this house again without telling me where you’re going….”

When my grandfather came back home, he asked, “Did you notice the boy’s footsteps? Coming to the fields his tracks were very close together. Leaving the fields, they were far apart.”

Grandma replied, “That’s because I had a switch on him.”

It was a different time back then. Discipline was different, but the lesson stuck. Even as a grown man, my dad would make it a point to tell his mother where he was going whenever he left their house.

Here’s the lesson: correction should change behavior.

As a leader, you want improvement and change. Therefore, the coaching and correction you give must have purpose.

Your desire should be for your team to be markedly different–improved from when they first arrived.

The good news: most days you can lead and affect change simply through inspiration. However, those other days require candor that spotlights specific changes that must be made for improvement to take effect. No matter the method, you need to look for a change in footprints.

Positive change will be evident when your team members work–and live–differently after coaching has taken place.

For the record…don’t get a switch and chase workers around the office. You’ll be in endless meetings with HR, lawyers will get involved, and you will no doubt end up on the front page of your local newspaper.

Do, however, be like Grandma Pauline in this way: know the behavior you want to see changed and address it immediately.

Be clear and to the point.

Do that and you’ll be on the path to becoming a more effective leader.


– Brian Sanders