overcomingAll of us have perceived limitations. There are limitations of our resources, like intelligence or vocal ability. There are limitations of our virtues, like kindness or patience. There are also often self-imposed limitations on what we believe is possible. It is important to acknowledge which ones are true—and which ones are self-imposed and can be overcome when you are leading your team.

My mother had her limitations. I helped her define the precise location of her patience limitation many times as a child. Also, she was challenged in her later years by other things besides me, like technology. And don’t get me started about what she had to say about the space program…

Growing up in North Dakota, I learned some limitations of my own. But I don’t blame my mother. Oddly enough, I blame the sugar beet.

In fact, I have a thing or two to say about sugar beets that I need to get off my chest (with sincere apologies to my handsome nephew who is a sugar beet farmer).

There’s Nothing Sweet about Sugar Beets

Just to introduce you who haven’t had the pleasure, these are sugar beets:

Here’s a field of them:

And the Chamber of Commerce photo of the sugar beet factory in the 1950’s:

Finally, there is the stench from that factory and I do mean STENCH. But no photo could convey how bad a sugar beet refinery smelled in the 1950’s.

The world needs sugar beets—and hats off to all who work so hard to bring them to our stores. However, I don’t love Sugar Beets, and particularly not the sickening foul smell that billowed from that factory. I’m not the only one who feels this way. There’s even a Facebook discussion devoted to debating the smell entitled: “Sugar Beet. Love it or Hate it.”

One exceptionally eloquent writer describes the smell this way:

The odor coats the towns–a dusty, slightly musty, faintly sweet yet earthy aroma, like steamed broccoli but without the tang… Obnoxious only in its omnipresence. It’s the smell of money….”

It is, by the way, because Sugar beets bring in a lot of bucks! No, really. If you are fascinated by the sugar beet industry and process, just read this article or watch this video about a modern North Dakota Sugar Beet factory. (To be fair, I have not smelled a sugar beet factory before or since and it’s quite possible that sugar beet manufacturing no longer has a stench.)

Maybe those folks that liked the smell of sugar beets back then, lived 50 miles away and never went inside the factory like I did—or they sneaked outside and smoked some of it. Whatever they did, their smell equipment must have been a lot different from mine. Or, they don’t remember their only class trip as a visit there.

Yes, my class trip was a visit to the sugar beet factory, and here is the crux of the issue. Granted, it was in another town. I lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The factory was in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, across the river.

The factory was about five miles outside of the city. Despite this distance, an aroma permeated the air everywhere, all the time. Outside the factory, it smelled like steamed (rotten) broccoli. Inside, it smelled like the petrification of some great hairy beast.

We went into the lab. The chemists revealed what they did there at the sugar beet factory. All in all, it was an interesting class trip. It wasn’t until I expanded my horizons and changed my geography that I felt miffed about my class trip location.

Some of my colleagues went to much more exotic locales for their class trips. When I heard my friends talking about class trips to Washington, DC, and the like, I was envious. One of them even went to Paris, and I don’t mean Paris, Texas!

When you compare Paris, the city of lights with East Grand Forks. Minnesota, the city of sugar beets well,…you can understand why I’m bitter.

Perhaps that bitterness is coloring my memory of the sugar beet odor a bit. But if your class took their trip to the sugar beet factory, your nose would be out of joint, too.

Setting Limitations for Ourselves

So, what does a class trip to a sugar beet factory have to do with leadership? I can understand your skepticism if you think I’m stretching here, but bear with me.

What we experience becomes our standard. It never occurred to me–until decades later when my friend said she had gone to Paris on a class trip–that a sugar beet factory tour added to the limits on my thinking of growing up in a small town. I didn’t see until years later how not traveling and assuming those in charge know what they are doing was limiting what I thought was possible.

Granted, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, there weren’t a lot of Paris equivalents anywhere close. However, there was the art gallery in Minneapolis and the Winnipeg opera, or even the Fargo symphony. They were seven hours, three hours, or one-hour driving distance away, respectively—unless there was a blizzard. Then you could forget it!

I’m not blaming the lovely people who provided my education or making fun of my hometown (okay, maybe a little). What I am trying to understand is where the limits on my early vision of the world were formed.

For years, I was convinced I “couldn’t” do this or “can’t” do that. The examples abound, including some things that I went on to achieve, like being a CEO, or becoming a published writer. The serious downside was those beliefs of what I thought were possible limited what I was willing to try.

(At this stage of my life, however, I may have the opposite problem. I don’t think anything is impossible—and I tend to challenge anyone or anything that presents an opposing view to this idea.)

When you lead your team, you need to remember to leave your limitations of the past where you learned them. Move forward to a place where you can do anything you set your mind to, and inspire your team to do the same. Perhaps you can broaden their horizons and raise their expectations of what is possible.

And in many ways, isn’t that what being a leader is all about?

P.S. To Burt’s Bees: Perhaps now you’ll understand why I have no intention of trying your SUGAR BEET SHAMPOO—I don’t care how shiny it makes my hair!