Imagine that you’re travelling from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia. You’ve got a travelling companion—someone younger and more vulnerable than you. You’ve been on the road for a couple of days and your bus stops at a restaurant so that everyone can grab a bite to eat. As you’re eating, you and your friend get lost in conversation, and when you look up—your bus is gone. What do you do?
What if you were only thirteen years old? If it happened today, you’d probably use your cell phone to call your parents.
But when it happened to me, it was long before cell phones or the Internet existed.
When I was twelve, I joined the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets , the junior training program for young people who want to develop their naval skills, learn more about their maritime environment, or someday join the Canadian military. One component of the program was cadet camp, which took place in British Columbia. The summer after I joined cadets, my twelve-year-old friend and I were sent to camp for the first time. We boarded the bus and spent the next couple of days in the back seat. I don’t remember how well behaved we were, but we must have been loud, because the man who was seated in front of us certainly didn’t hesitate to complain about us to the bus driver.
The bus stopped regularly for bathroom breaks and food, but I’ll never forget the day we stopped at the restaurant with the coin-operated video games. My friend and I made a beeline for them and quickly lost track of time. We didn’t even notice when the rest of the passengers filed out of the restaurant to board the bus. By the time we looked up from our games, everyone was gone. It was just me, my young friend, and a restaurant full of strangers.
A wave of panic swept over me as I fought back tears. My friend also realized we were alone—and he immediately burst into tears. I was terrified, too, but I knew I had to hold it together for my younger friend. I had to toughen up. I still remember making a conscious decision to reign in my emotions and do what had to be done. When I speak in my seminars now, I call this behaviour “keeping your helmet on”.
I acted quickly, running into the middle of the restaurant and shouting, “Our bus left!” I sounded panicked, but I felt calm. People stopped their conversation to look at us, and one man jumped up offered to take us to catch the bus. It was a risk, getting in a car with a stranger, but at 13, it seemed like our only option. We hopped in the car and our Good Samaritan did as he promised—caught up to the bus and flagged it down.
By keeping a cool head, I was able to get my friend and I out of a scary, difficult situation. I had to judge whether or not to take a risk and I needed to make a quick decision. I kept my helmet on and it all worked out.
This was one of the earliest times in my life when I had to toughen up, but it certainly wasn’t the last. As I grew up, and eventually joined the military, “keeping my helmet on” became a mantra for me; it’s a phrase that’s gotten me through a lot of challenging situations. And in business, it’s no different. If we want to achieve our professional goals, we need to stay focused and keep our emotions in check, every time.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Toughen Up: Basic Training for Leadership Success.