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  • Writer's pictureStu Lloyd

It was me, sir.

I imagine I was no older than 10 or 11 years old, playing with my brothers and our neighbours -- the Leith Brothers -- after school, like we did most days.

But this day was different because we'd found a box of matches lying in the grass beside the road.

We then did what most curious schoolboys would do: see what happens when you set fire to the nearest thing.

Unfortunately, the nearest thing to us was a sugar-cane field. It was that time of year where the cane was fully grown (certainly way taller than us) and the leaves brown and dry.

I struck a match, and held it to the nearest leaf. It sparked and crackled and was soon aflame. Nice! We stomped out the little flame. Now everyone wanted a turn. Matches were lit, leaves caught fire. We stomped it out. Great fun!

And then came my turn again. I held the match to a bunch of leaves, and suddenly the next leaves caught fire, and the ones next to those. We slapped, and stamped, and swiped at the leaves. But all it did was send sparks into the neighbouring stalks.


Some of the boys pulled off their shirts and swatted the flames with them, but this just fanned them further. The hissing, crackling and popping of the flames in the cane grew bigger and louder. It was a real runaway fire.

Brainwave: you guys go run for some water. The nearest tap was down near our house over 100 metres away. No hose would reach that far. So we all ferried cups and dishes and buckets from the tap to the fire, which was by now running angrily across the field.

I remember the nervous panic. I knew we were losing this battle.

By the time a farm truck arrived, full of workers with hessian sacks to beat the flames, and some hoses and pumps that sucked water out of our swimming pool, I felt the end of the world (at least my world) was near. We were no strangers to trouble, but this was unimaginably BIG trouble. Because by now nearly a whole football field's worth of valuable sugar cane had been burned, with thousands more acres at risk.

And the troubles only got bigger when a looming figure stepped out of a pick-up truck which pulled to a halt next to us.

It was Mr Potgieter. Sh*t! Double sh*t!

What you need to understand is that Mr Potgieter was a big, muscular man with a big bushy moustache, a World War 2 veteran no less, with a stern manner at the best of times, and even sterner when schoolboys were burning down his farm. In his hand was a rattan cane.

As the farm workers battled the fire, he rounded us all up, sizing us up with his beady eyes, looking us over one by one. That was nearly enough to make me pee my little pants.

"Ok, who started this fire?" he barked, waving his cane around menacingly.

There was silence. We all studied our toes and the ground with sudden amazing interest.

After what seemed like several minutes, but what was probably only several seconds of awkward silence, a little high-pitched voice stuttered from the back of the pack.

"M, m, m, me, sir."

It was my voice.

More silence.

"Step forward, Lloyd."

This can only mean the beating from hell, I thought, as I stepped through my brothers towards him.

Then suddenly his angry face turned to a big beaming grin.

"See that? This boy is honest. He has owned up."

By now my eyes were watery. Not from the smoke as much as being overcome with emotion.

"Well done, that's a good thing you've done in owning up there," Mr Potgieter said, patting me on the shoulder. Phew! I couldn't believe I wasn't going to be receiving a thrashing. Instead, I was being praised for my bravery and honesty.

Of course, Mr Potgieter reported this incident to my parents when they got home. And the whole farming community soon heard of the fire. But the story Mr Potgieter was telling was not of the sugar cane lost, but of this honest young boy who dared to face him, step forward and accept responsibility.

The memory of that day remains firmly etched in my mind. Not just the dangerous events, but more the lesson learned.

I learned that it pays to be honest. That was a major life-long lesson.

It has shaped and informed my personal and professional decision making ever since.

Because every time I'm in a situation thinking 'Do I tell the truth and own this, or try to fabricate an excuse?' or 'Can I mark up this invoice to client more?' I instinctively default to taking the honesty route.

Sometimes it's more expensive (and painful) in the shorter term, but it's always more rewarding in the longer term. Because honesty pays. You have your integrity intact. And that's priceless.

So how does this relate to you, your personal brand, and your professional dealings?

What stories do YOU have to define who you are, who you've become, what you stand for, how you live, and how you make decisions?

Having a story bank of such examples helps define you, and gives you ready-made illustrations to use. Otherwise, you're stuck with pleading that 'honesty' is an important value to you. You're telling it, not showing it.

Show your values with real and relevant stories.

Over to you ...

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