Time In A Bucket And Time In A Bottle

The amount of time we have for our big project, our big switch, our big change. We thought it was a bunch of time between now and then. Enough to fill the big green bucket. A large amount of time. Oodles.

Turns out we were wrong. Life got a vote, life made the choice for us, and life said it’s not a big bucket but a tiny bottle instead. We have no where near the time we assumed for planning, discussion, further thoughts, possible solutions, or, (let’s be honest, best of all to many of us) that the whole thing would somehow just go away.

Instead, rather than the bucket of time, we got the little glass bottle’s amount of time. No where near what we had assumed. Nothing like our preferences and expectations.

The tomorrow we thought was two years, five years, whatever years off is now staring us right in the nose.

Goodbye to the bucket. Hello to the bottle. (More precisely, the little glass bottle in the picture though maybe some of you have other bottles in mind.)

For many of you, I’ve just described the first six months of 2020. Let’s take higher education as an example. The rest of you shouldn’t get complacent: it could be any of countless other sectors of the economy and segments of work and the workplace.

The demographics of higher education were screaming that a change was coming. Fewer traditional-age young people in the pipeline. Looks like 2025 or so was when the worst wave was going to hit and enrollments were going to slide. And various colleges and universities—or at least pieces and slices of them—were gathering the will to think and plan and budget for the coming wave. It’s a comfortable process: think, plan, budget. There, now we’ll be ready.

Covid-19 arrived, knocked on the door of the college president’s house, and said “pardon me, the wave is now.” Five years vanished in five weeks. Think? Don’t care. Plan? Don’t care. Budget? Don’t care.

Now what?

A true story from American history leaps to my mind. I’ve told it before but life keeps bringing it back to our reality again and again. The fact that I can truthfully admit that ought to tell you a lot.


December 7, 1941, Sunday afternoon, and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall enters the War Department. Half a world away in the Hawaii Territory, Pearl Harbor is burning, the smoke still thick in the air, dead soldiers and sailors and air crew haven’t been fully accounted for. Sirens are blaring. People are running. And in every American home between the island harbor and Marshall’s desk, men, women, and children look at each other with worried eyes as reports come in over radio.

Now what?

For the past 28 months, Marshall has been thinking, planning, training, preparing, and yes, budgeting for the next war Americans will fight. He knew it was coming. He just didn’t know precisely when. He had overhauled the way in which the American military readied itself. He’d done a lot of other important stuff as well. He wasn’t shocked at the news of fighting. He wasn’t dreading the next phone call or telegram delivery. The time that was thought to be somewhere off in the distance is now standing right in front of him, nose to nose.

He walks into the space next to his War Department office and all eyes, all worried eyes, turn toward him, fix on him, seize on him for any trace or hint of what he’s thinking. The bucket is gone. The bottle is there.

Marshall feels the eyes.

He speaks a simple sentence to the group of younger officers and staff workers.

“We are now in the fog of war.”


A week later, the following Sunday, Marshall is sitting alone in his office at the War Department. Seven days. His office door opens and a young-ish man stands there waiting to be invited in. Marshall waves him inside. The two sit on opposite sides of a bare table. Marshall speaks a simple sentence to the young man named Dwight Eisenhower, a new member of the planning team in the War Department.

“Tell me what you think we should do.”

A breath next and a blink between, Eisenhower answers, “Give me four hours.”

Marshall nods, points him to a nearby office, and writes down four hours later in this same afternoon as the time of their next meeting, the time when the young man—who in a normal moment would have wanted four weeks to develop his reply—will offer answers in detail.

Bucket gone. Bottle now.


If you’re a leader at your college or university, if you’re a leader in another type of organization or enterprise, I want you to think through this unforgettable story.

December 7. December 14. George Marshall. Top of the hierarchy. Dwight Eisenhower. One of many in the pyramid. And a world that won’t give the time needed. Your life is in there.

Who knows—maybe you’ve got enough time to have a brief chat with me about how you can apply the story to your leadership.

For the price of a bottle.

Thanks for reading. All the best, Dan