Leadership Lessons from the Twilight Zone

May 03, 2023

I was watching one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes recently and thought about the relevance of this episode regarding leadership and perseverance - so here are my thoughts. Below is the overview of the episode Kick the Can that aired originally in February 1962.

Unsatisfied with his current circumstances, senior citizen Charles Whitley calls on his fellow nursing home residents to join him for a game of kick the can—a favorite pastime of the neighborhood children. Meanwhile, Ben Conroy—a man of Charles' age—worries about the mental condition of his old acquaintance since he wants to play a child’s game at his age. Ben was convinced that something was wrong with Charles.

This is a two sentence synopsis and does little justice but I'll share thoughts along the way. If you haven’t watched this episode – take a few minutes to watch it and let me know what you think. Here are a few Leadership lessons that I took away from this episode.

  1. Your dissatisfaction can be a catalyst for greater achievement.

Charles became frustrated watching kids outside laughing and running, while playing Kick the Can. His dissatisfaction of being in a nursing home seemed to overwhelm him to the point of wanting to do something different.  While it is unfortunate – sometimes, as professionals, we only seek a career change or other movement when we experience heightened dissatisfaction. It’s when you have had too much _____ (you fill in the blank), that you are willing to consider something else.  Dissatisfaction and frustration should not be the motivation behind transformative decisions. These emotions ultimately lead to making desperate and potentially irrational decisions.

Though dissatisfaction can motivate you to make a different decision, it is still important to utilize calculated risk assessment. So here are some questions to consider.

  • What’s your risk tolerance to pursue your dream that may be closer than you think?  
  • When you eliminate your dissatisfaction with another person’s behavior – can you determine you have a future doing what you are currently doing?
  • Is your leadership performance currently impacted by your dissatisfaction?

This is a short list but I think you get the point. If these apply to you, remember the old adage – you can’t fit a round peg into a square hole. Ben was the peer telling Charles - we can't do that.

Fear will keep us stuck in places and positions where we have no opportunity for growth and development.  

2. It's okay to be led by optimism.

Once Charles realized that his son wasn’t coming to rescue him from the nursing home, he decided to make the best of his current environment.  Sometimes, leaders fall into the trap of thinking next month will be better or when we move into our new building things will be more organized. If you can't envision the change and work towards it daily - then maybe it doesn't exist yet in your heart.

In Charles’ current space – the nursing home – he decided that he would “create” the environment that he knew was possible. He didn’t ask the nursing home Director for permission; he didn’t wait for other rogue nursing home residents to come around – Charles simply determined to make the best of his current situation even if he did it on his own. He wanted to live life to the fullest. He helped other resident’s experience what they believed was impossible at their age and in the nursing home just by living out his dream.  

When you stop dreaming; you stop living and growing. Leaders influence and give hope even in the darkest of times. Optimism should overtake our reality every day. As a leader, it is easy to get into the rut of responding to daily disasters without developing processes and a plan to avoid repeat disastrous situations. If you are at the point where you expect disaster, reassess your optimism thermometer.

How do you know you have lost optimism in your current context? You start saying “It’s what they want to do.” Or “They don’t care, so it’s something we have to do.”

Yes, we will always have friend’s like Ben, that have our best interest at heart. They convey the cautious and conservative tale that echoes – you should play it safe!

But then remember - Charles got up out of the bed, rallied the troops, and went outside to play! Get up Leader it’s time to play!

3. What’s killing your creativity?

Ben went to get the nursing home Director when we couldn't reason with Charles. He believed his friend was losing it. As a leader, it is important to discern what you can influence and change. You have to know what you can influence and what is what is merely another island in your organization.  In considering our natural landscape - one way an island can be created is by erosion.

Think about it...an island was once connected to a larger body of land. What was once an enormous collection of land, can eventually become a piece of land completed surrounded by water. Over time, sand and debris (trash) is deposited on a weaker area of the land mass and the debris starts to chip away at the land and separates it from the entire body of land. Then an island is formed.

Doesn’t the same thing happen in our organizations? It’s easier to manage the island sometimes rather than divert or get rid of the trash along the way.   

Once your creativity is gone – then so are dreams! Avoid critics and dream killers even if they are your closest friends or family members. Your gut is telling you to paint a different picture. Remember, your destiny is not the place that everyone else would understand. When you say “yes” then they say “it’s too risky” or imply that it won’t work.  

When is the last time that you had a dream for your team or for yourself? What stopped you or has derailed you from pursuing your dream? Is it that you believe that you are too old? Or that you are too young? That is the excitement of creativity – it happens irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, or anything else that can be construed as a limiting factor.  

It’s time to put that creativity hat back on – you are a leader and legacy leaders are destined to lead and always find a way to lead! Remember, "You unlock this door with the key of imagination!"

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