Going the Distance – 7 Secrets for Success in Love (and Leadership)

My son has just gotten married, so why did his new bride send me a link to her satellite tracker?  And what does that have to with my passing the 30-years-married threshold?  And how does any of this relate to leadership?  Those are certainly all good questions.  By the end of this post, I hope to clear that up, and leave you with seven ways, whether in love or leadership, to build relationships capable of going the distance.

Going the Distance

Off the Grid

Every few hours over the last couple days, I’ve been hitting the refresh button for the Spot satellite tracker app on my phone.  I’m curious to see if the newly married couple have moved recently.  Spot is a great tool for keeping track of people who go so far off the grid that there isn’t any other kind of connectivity. 

Their last message to me was that they had made it to shore and were starting their overland trek.  They would be out of communication range for several days.  They shared a link to their Spot device so I would be able see where they were. 

Sattelite Tracker Screen ShotThe Spot web site boasts having helped with “8,443 rescues and counting.”  Of course, we’re hoping that the happy couple do not contribute to raising that number, but at least there’s some solace in knowing that if they get into trouble, there’s a fair chance we’ll be able to find them.  

The two married just last weekend in Nashville.  Now they are on their honeymoon.  Beaches and cruise ships are not their style, though; they chose Iceland.  And by Iceland, I mean taking a ferry to the extreme north west corner of the island, getting dropped off via Zodiac boat at the end of a fjord, and then hiking overland to the northern coast of the Hornstandir Nature Reserve. 

It’s a wild sub-arctic place covered in glaciers, vast expanses of tundra, soaring cliffs, and bathed in almost 22 hours of daylight this time of year.  Also, there have been no permanent human residents since the 1950s.  


Blank Slates

I say that because I think doing something like that puts them on the right heading for forging a good life together.  Here’s what I mean.

My wife and I had a long-distance courtship for just over a year.  When the Army gave me orders to ship out to Panama, it was decision time.  I proposed, and promised to come back and marry her as soon as she finished grad school.  Eight months later, I jetted north into a frozen Minnesota January, married my dream girl, and then we flew together to live in the tropical heat of Panama.

At the time, the country was still recovering from Operation Just Cause and the ouster of dictator Manuel Noriega.  How we managed to find housing, work, and adjust to life in that far-off place is subject for a different post.  For here, suffice it to say that, like the frozen land that my son and his bride are exploring, our first experience together was also in a strange land, where everything from weather patterns, to finding basic necessities was different from what we were used to. 

What made that a good thing is that we were forced to work together to figure out how to sustain ourselves.  One person wasn’t joining another in their space and on their journey; both were stepping out to forge a new life together.   Everything was up for questioning and adjustment.  The life patterns we set would be mutually agreed upon from the beginning, then subject to collaborative editing as life went on.


Going the Distance

That was 1992, and since then the adventure has continued.  Thirty years on, we both like to quip that, “We think we’re off to a good start, and are planning to stick with it!”  With my son’s recent marriage, it seems like a good time to reflect on what has gone well for us, and attempt to pass those ideas on to him and his new wife.

I’m no marriage counselor, but I think starting off life together with a blank slate is a good beginning.  That doesn’t necessarily require epic treks near the arctic circle, or moving to some far-off land.  I think the important parts to remember are that it’s about the mindset, and that it’s not just about “day 1.” 

Going the distance means approaching each phase of life as a new set of experiences, and an opportunity to see how well you can negotiate them together. 

Beyond that, here are six other things I hope they take to heart, and I think will help anyone who is planning on going the distance.

2.  Be Choosey

This is actually the best place to start, though I’m a little late to the party in dispensing this advice to my son.  Even so, I think he has done well.  There may be much to attract the eye in a potential partner, but if we hope to build a lasting relationship, we have to look beneath the surface, and get to what will also captivate the heart and mind. 

Last year, while on a road trip with my son, I asked him what were the top three things that attracted him to his fiancé.  Over the next thirty miles, he gave me an ear-full.  I think he was on reason number seven or eight for why he loved her when we ran out of time.  He talked about things like mutual interests (they met while rock climbing), similar values, a caring and open heart, independence, intelligence, self-reliance, and a sense of adventure (which helps explain the Iceland thing). 

As attractive as she is, I was almost surprised at how late in the discussion that specific quality came up; it didn’t appear on the list until we hit the exit ramp. 

I think he has the right perspective.  A lifetime commitment means a lot of time together; I’m not sure any one quality is adequate to go that kind of distance.  The list of reasons to be together should be long and detailed.  It might even be a good idea to write down exactly what they are; that list could come in handy later. 

In fact…

3.  Grow Together

Our pastor recently shared a story of a couple that came to him years ago in desperation; they were on the brink of separation.  They had tried everything they could think of, but were unable to reconnect.  Our pastor wasn’t sure if he could help them, but suggested they try a simple exercise. 

He challenged them to sit down independently and draw up a list of what it was about the other person they had liked so much in the first place.   “Call me when you are done,” he told them, though he thought he’d never hear back.  Surprisingly, about a week later, his phone rang. 

When they came in, he asked them to read their lists aloud to each other.  As they did this, it was like seeing the first cracks in the ice forming. They had a lot of work to do, but refocusing on what made them special to each other was the beginning.  They are still together today.

So often when couples split up, they explain that they just, “grew apart.” Amidst all the temptations and obligations that tend to pull us away from each other, success over the long-haul means being deliberate about doing things together.

Having a “date night” every week or two is a common prescription, and a good start.  But don’t leave it at that.  Daily interactions matter, too.  

A dozen small acts that show our loving ways beat a dozen roses every other Thursday. Click To Tweet

Going the Distance - Kayaking TogetherAnother idea is to try new things together.  Last fall my wife and I bought a couple kayaks off Craig’s List and have had fun exploring some of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes (when they aren’t covered in ice).   Sharing this new experience keeps us connected and growing together as a couple.  Her smile out on the water is worth the price of admission!

Going the distance means devoting time and energy to growing together with our partner so we’re less likely to grow apart.

4.  Mind the Gap

Imagine we are given a bank account.  On the first day, we start with a set amount of cash, and day by day it slowly accumulates interest.  A nice feature about this account is that the more we have in it, the more credit the banker will extend to us.  So long as we always make our repayments on time, our account continues to grow.  In fact, each time we prove our ability to repay any loan, our credit rating goes up.

But, of course, there is a catch.  Miss just one payment, and the bank immediately threatens to close the account.  A bank examiner raps on the door and wants to check our records.  Our voice mail box is suddenly jammed with queries from the IRS, other creditors, and even close friends.  Checks we have written begin to bounce, and “insufficient funds” fees appear on our statements.  Worst of all, that house we were making payments on is suddenly in danger of foreclosure. 

So it is with trust.  We build it by the drop, but stand to lose it by the bucket-full if we are not careful.   Yet as fragile as it is, it is also foundational to any lasting relationship.  With it, we can speak openly, manage finances, share intimacy, make well-intended mistakes, and rely on each other to get through a thousand daily challenges, or the unexpected life-changing upheavals that confront us.

Without trust, all these things become exponentially more difficult and the relationship can falter.  As Sophocles put it so well:

Trust dies, but mistrust blossoms. - Sophocles Click To Tweet

Or as I like to say, “The gap between words and deeds is where distrust grows.” Just as a tiny weed will find the smallest crack in the sidewalk to force its way though, earning trust in small matters is just as important as earning it in big ones.  Transparency and honesty are key, even when, or perhaps especially when, being honest makes us look bad.  In the long run, it is far better to admit fault than be caught in a lie.

Going the distance means minding the gap between words and deeds, and being worthy of the other person’s trust in all things, big and small.

5.  Spell-check Your L-O-V-E 

A lot of very smart people have tried to precisely define what love is, and I’m pretty sure all of them have failed.  I won’t even attempt it, but I will suggest an alternate spelling of the word:   R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 

Sure, hormones and biology are involved, but as time passes and relationships mature, if we’re planning on going the distance, behind the gossamer haze of infatuation has to lie a bedrock of respect. 

One way of looking at it is that, if all goes well, this is the only partner we are likely to have in this life.  More to the point, we are the only one they will have.  They have given us the precious gift of the rest of their time on this planet.  In our hands is the power to prove that we were either a good bet, or a bad one.

Most evenings, I clean the kitchen.  I don’t necessarily like to clean the kitchen.  What I do like is knowing that when my wife comes downstairs in the morning and sees drying dishes and clean counters, it makes for a pleasant start to her day.  I want all her days to be good ones, so I clean the kitchen the night before. 

I’m pretty certain that if we tallied up all the “kitchen cleaning” that goes on between us, there’s an imbalance, with her doing more for me.  But she has said that she thinks the opposite is true.  That’s a good place to be.

Going the distance means making a daily effort to demonstrate our respect, and trying to make life just a little bit more pleasant for the other person. 

6.  Communicate

We all can use work in this area; like leadership, it’s one of those tasks that is never completely done, and never fully perfected.  The key is to always be deliberately working on it. 

I didn’t really want a dog, but somehow we ended up with one, and my wife walks her every day.  Often, she will ask me if I want to go along.  I make it a point to say “yes,” and to be there mentally as we walk and talk.  It’s a great way to make sure we are sharing our head space, and keeping the lines of communication open.  

Differences will crop up; that’s what makes us human.  A helpful way to deal with them is to focus on finding the best answer to WHAT is right, and steer away from any discussion about WHO is right.  When we let ego get in the way, we can find ourselves trying to defend bad ideas or poor decisions. 

A bonus here is that focusing on the WHAT instead of the WHO makes it easier to opt for the solution that is best for all, even if we didn’t come up with it ourselves (Translation:  it’s a lot less painful when it turns out we’re wrong).

Going the distance means always striving to communicate better.

7.  Give Grace a Chance

When someone cuts me off in traffic, my impulse is to immediately assume that person is just being a selfish jerk.  My more understanding partner is quick to suggest a different reason – maybe their wife’s water just broke and they need to get to the hospital.  I suppose that’s possible, though if that’s really true every time, there’s a looming population explosion that no one is talking about.

Still, her point is a good one, and an example worth following.  A little empathy can go a long way.  When two humans are in close proximity for an extended period of time, somebody’s toes are going to get stepped on, even if, or in my case, especially if, we are trying to dance. 

It’s OK to point out the bruised foot, but don’t forget to give credit for being out on the dance floor in the first place.

Going the distance means assuming the best of the other person, and starting from a place of grace.

Going the Distance – The Takeaway

I hit the refresh button on my satellite tracker again, and was finally rewarded with an update.  My son and his wife had spent the day traversing the peninsula, clambering up rocky heights, navigating their way across a fog-bound glacial field, and fording chest-deep icy rivers.  Tonight, they will be bivouacking near the black-sand shore of the Greenland Sea. 

I’m sure their trek was a lot like their future will be:  a series of adventures, moments of difficulty, encounters with the unexpected, and wonder at the world around them.  I’m also sure that they made it to camp in the same way they will make it through life – by choosing well, communicating constantly, supporting each other respectfully, growing together, earning trust, and giving grace every step of the way.

What’s the leadership tie-in?  Leadership is all about relationships.  The same things that make for a strong marital bond will also stand us in good stead when it comes to leading others. 

If we would have others commit to us, we can best start by demonstrating our commitment to them. Click To Tweet

An interesting thing about satellite trackers:  they only show us where we’ve been, and where we are now.  Where we’re going is the big unknown.

Going the Distance - Trekking IcelandAlone in camp together, with the midnight sun low over the questioning sea, the new couple could finally relax for a moment, revel in the experience of a new beginning, and contemplate what lies ahead.

Where are they going?  I don’t need a satellite tracker to tell me that. 

I think they are headed in the right direction.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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