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A Story About a Starfish

Leah Medlenka just finished her stint with us in our seventh cohort of eMMissaries. An Air Force veteran, she now takes care of her two wonderful boys while supporting her Air Force husband Derek, also a former eMMissary.

My favorite illustration of mentoring is from a tale called “The Starfish Story”. When I first heard it years ago, it instantly imprinted on me. A mentor of mine had shared it as the inspiration behind his career of supporting students as a guidance counselor as well as a volunteer within our church’s youth group. Perhaps you have heard it too. It goes something like this:

A boy was walking with an older man along the beach early one morning after a storm. Because of the changing tides, the shore was covered with hundreds of starfish for miles and miles. As the two walked, the boy began picking up starfish one by one, tossing them back into the sea.

The old man watched the boy for a while, and then questioned him about it. “Why are you throwing the starfish back into the ocean?” The boy replied, “the tide brought them in, and they will die if they don’t return to the water before the sun rises. If I don’t toss them back in, they have no way of returning to their home.”

The old man said to the boy, “there are hundreds, if not THOUSANDS, of starfish on this beach! There’s no way you can save them all. You won’t really make a difference.” The young boy stopped walking. He bent over and picked up a starfish with a smile. He he threw it back into the ocean, then looked to the man and said with a smile, “well, it made a difference to that one.”

This parable continued to live in my mind as I raised my right hand and enlisted in the Air Force as soon as I graduated high school. I served for seven and a half years as a medic working in various clinics and inpatient wards. I viewed each patient I had the honor of treating as a starfish to toss back into the ocean. Every Airman I supervised, taught, or mentored in some way was a starfish rescued from the sand. Then I made a career change and said goodbye to active-duty life with the birth of my first son. I found with him and my second son my new purpose and my new starfishes to make the biggest splashes with.

For me, this story depicts two ways we can be better leaders. The first is to eliminate the

“old man” from the picture. I think many hear this anecdote and want to adopt it as their own leadership philosophy. The problem is there are a lot of the “old man” figures in our lives surrounding us. Sometimes even we become that voice of negativity to our peers.

Instead of encouraging the boy, the older man belittles the child’s efforts. To be a life changing leader, you must build those around you up with words that will encourage their endeavors. Rather than harping on the negatives or the impossibility of a task before someone, try to find the positive, no matter how small it is. Recognize the efforts made by the airmen and soldiers around you before identifying their shortcomings.

Nothing is worse than feeling as if you are working your hardest, to only having the rest of your to-do list pointed out.

The second way I see a person can become a better leader from this story is to have an eye for those around you as the boy does. It is easy to be the old man in the story. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the obstacles facing you. A new airman needing guidance, NCO’s eager for strong leadership, the demands of home life providing for a spouse and children, the day-to-day core requirements of your job. Deadlines, taskers, expectations.

We must change our mindset of “I can’t possibly fix all of this”. Instead of becoming frozen with overwhelming “to-dos”, we can individually focus on what is within our reach. By just inspiring one person, we can change the entire course of the armed forces. Leaders can change the trajectory for an individual’s entire life and purpose by influencing their career in a positive way. Parents have the ability to transform a whole generation by being strong leaders to their children in the home. Friends can motivate those beside them to do more, be more, give more to achieve their dreams. Mentor those around you in ways you wish someone would have built you up and believed in you.

So, be the kid picking up the starfish. Reach just one person. Witness the difference you can make to a single individual and see what kind of wave comes.

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