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Everyday, the kids walked barefoot amongst the broken glass and shrapnel covering the garbage dump where they lived, until one man intervened.

Rick gritted his teeth as the doctor began to lance his toes apart, one by one.

That old farmer on the side of the road had warned him. He’d taken one look at Rick’s bare feet crisping up in the summer sun and said, “Boy, I don’t let my donkey get out on the road in this heat ‘cause it’ll cripple him. I guess that makes you dumber than a jackass.”

It was Day One of ‘The Walk’. Rick was 32 miles in, with 308 miles left to go.

He managed a second glance at his feet, torn to shreds by the sun-scorched earth on which he had spent the last thirteen hours walking barefoot. It was the kind of burnt tarmac that would melt your thongs if you stood on it too long. Not only had his toes fused together, but his feet were all shades of red and blistered.

The worn-out preacher closed his eyes and sat back to let the doctor finish his work, thinking again about the promise he had made…

“Hey mister,” had come a small voice in Spanish, and a hand pulling on his sleeve. “Can I swap my toy for a pair of shoes?”

The source of the voice, a little boy maybe seven or eight years old, was barefoot amongst the broken glass and scraps of rusted tin that blanketed the garbage dump where they stood.

It was Christmas Day, and Rick and his elves had driven overnight with a carload of toys to reach the northern slums of Mexico. Following a vulture rather than a bright star, they had stumbled upon a dump filled with mountains of garbage that at first glance seemed to move.

But as they got closer, they realised the moving parts were actually people, dozens if not hundreds of ‘garbage pickers’ – men, women and children who rummaged through the trash for something to eat, wear or sell.

The boy stared intently up at him, a shiny green toy truck clutched in his outstretched hands, and at first Rick was surprised – why would any child give up a toy for some shoes? Especially at Christmas! But as he caught a glimpse of the boy’s feet, it made a lot of sense – cut to pieces by the unforgiving terrain, his little feet were bleeding, blistered, swollen and red.

But there had been no shoes left to give him, no money either. So with a broken heart, Rick gave him the only thing he could, “I give you my word – I’ll come back this summer and I’ll bring you some shoes.”

As a high school teacher and a minister, he and his wife could put together the money to buy those shoes, he thought. But fortune seemed to smile on him just a couple of short weeks later as he drove up to a church where he was booked to speak.

“There were so many Jaguars in the parking lot, you could have filmed a Tarzan movie,” Rick recalls. 

Wealthy though they were, the congregation was unmoved by his request for funding – just a few pairs of shoes for the boy and his family.

Finally he managed to convince them to sponsor him 10 pairs of shoes for every mile he walked across his home state of Alabama. There was just one catch – he’d have to do it without any shoes on.

That summer, on the 4th of July, Rick began what he calls his “pilgrimage of a promise” – 547km from east to west, the equivalent of walking across the entire state of Victoria, and he was going to walk it barefoot in the middle of summer, just like his friend down in the dumps in Mexico.

“I zigzagged here and there across the blazing hot ground and I remember burning my feet up, thinking what a dumb idea this is.” He laughs. “This was a dumb idea.”

It was at the end of that first day when Rick had to get his doctor to lance his toes apart after they had welded together in the scorching summer heat. They looked every bit as cut up as the feet of his little Mexican friend.

The next morning, Rick awoke to a nation stirred by the amazing story of a preacher walking barefoot across his home state. The story had been picked up by CNN, ESPN, ABC, NBC – pretty much every major news station in the country.

“My goal was to get 3,400 pairs of shoes for 340 miles,” Rick said. “I ended up that year with 60,000 pairs of shoes, and we went back to Mexico.”

After finding “the little rascal” and his family, they gave shoes to every person in that garbage dump, young and old.

Later, Rick’s organisation bought the dump and converted it into an orphanage, which has since been voted the top orphanage in Mexico.

Since that first year, Rick – often accompanied by his beautiful wife, Kim, and now with his shoes on – has diligently walked across one state every year, sometimes more than one if they’re small enough.

With the help of charitable organisations like Soles4Souls and Roma Boots, they have raised over one million pairs of shoes in the last three decades, and the 60-year-old preacher isn’t stopping anytime soon.

“There’s still one more kid that needs a pair of shoes. There’s still one more mother crying because she can’t put shoes on her children’s feet.”

This year he will walk across his 39th and 40th US states.

“I always ask people, how far will you go to keep your word? So far I’ve walked roughly 25,000 kilometres to keep mine.”

For reference, that’s like walking the entire coastline of Australia almost twice! However, as Rick likes to tell people, you don’t need to walk across the country or even the state to make a difference in your community.

“Just take a step and see where it takes you. You may take a step across the lunchroom and sit down next to the new kid at school. You may take a step at work and talk to somebody that you can tell is going through a tough time.”

He and his wife Kim instil this philosophy of compassion-in-action in their four children, RC, Winchester, Elliot and Dreamer, who regularly join them on the walk as well as their biannual trip to Mexico.

Rick encourages people to keep their donations local, to give to those that are doing good in their own backyard. However, if you would like to learn more about the ‘The Walk’ or make a contribution to their amazing work, you can do so here or on their website.

They say that identifying a leader should be easy. Team members just know. Leadership assessments at the office got me thinking it’s clear who the leader is at home…and it’s certainly not me.

I recently participated in a leadership assessment process at work. This involved a self-assessment of how I perceive myself as a leader, and obtaining 360 degree feedback from my boss, peers and staff on my leadership style. It certainly got me doing some self analysis, and in particular thinking about how the results applied to my other role in life – parenthood – and how I would go if a similar assessment was performed on how I’m going.

What makes an effective leader is a difficult concept to put your finger on exactly, but one thing that most team members would say is that it should be very clear who the leader, or the leadership team, is. The leader in our house is certainly clear, but the leadership team beyond her can be a bit murky. Obviously I see myself as the deputy, ready to step up in her absence, but try telling that to two toddlers. Consider the situation when Ella is trying to get Sebastian to do something he doesn’t want to do.

“You’re not the boss,” I tell her firmly. “I know,” she says, “I’m only the second boss after Mummy”.  This type of exchange gives me valuable feedback on how my attempted leadership is perceived.

 

The leader in our house is certainly clear, but the leadership team beyond her can be a bit murky.

This is further exemplified by a situation that may arise where I’ve been struggling with getting the kids to start or stop something. Tempers are fraying (me), tears are rolling (them, with mine being held back), Timeout has been used to no effect and it’s all going completely pear-shaped. Until, that is, The Omnipotent One walks into the room. All she has to do is imperceptibly raise an eyebrow ever so slightly, and they jump to attention. If she isn’t around, the situation is likely to end up with me getting angry, and then being told by a two year old to go straight to Timeout for swearing.

This respect doesn’t just happen, it’s earned. An effective leader will use their positional power to put some fear into the eyes of their disciples to get them to perform. Sometimes it’s just the threat of me “telling mummy” that can prove effective.

Sometimes it’s just the threat of me “telling mummy” that can prove effective.

But effective leadership requires a balance of competencies, not just Hard Taskmaster.  And this was demonstrated to me in my leadership assessment where some of the competencies around Relating, Caring and Authenticity indicated I had room for improvement.

Take the situation where one of the kids is crying for what appears to me to be over nothing. My initial reaction is to tell them to stop crying for no reason; which generally makes it worse. Learning to take a minute to assess the situation, and decide whether they need emotional support rather than an Earful, has been a hard one to master. Flying off the cuff is a child-like response, while our adult brains should be sufficiently developed enough to assist our children with identifying what the problem is and how it’s making them feel, which then turns off the tears anyway.

The inspirational aspect of leadership though, is one where I feel I may be marked quite well on. It’s important that a leader sets a good example to their team and empowers them to have the confidence to deliver results. I believe Sebastian’s ultra-smooth transition to being toilet trained is solely down to the example I’ve set him by my own actions: proudly announce your intentions to the rest of the house, grab some reading material, enjoy the process, and then hold a feedback session afterwards on how it went.

So I have a feeling that my parental leadership is okay, with some areas for improvement. But to add some factual credence to this, I’ll be issuing my wife and kids with 360 degree feedback survey forms tonight. Armed with this information, who knows, I may even be promoted to second boss soon.

 

It’s important that a leader sets a good example to their team and empowers them to have the confidence to deliver results.

The inspirational aspect of leadership though, is one where I feel I may be marked quite well on. It’s important that a leader sets a good example to their team and empowers them to have the confidence to deliver results. I believe Sebastian’s ultra-smooth transition to being toilet trained is solely down to the example I’ve set him by my own actions: proudly announce your intentions to the rest of the house, grab some reading material, enjoy the process, and then hold a feedback session afterwards on how it went.

So I have a feeling that my parental leadership is okay, with some areas for improvement. But to add some factual credence to this, I’ll be issuing my wife and kids with 360 degree feedback survey forms tonight. Armed with this information, who knows, I may even be promoted to second boss soon.