Winding Waters

What stands out when you look at this picture of a winding river and its tributaries from such a high elevation?

It’s a striking photo, that’s for certain.

Brilliant greens and blues.

Beautifully laid out bends and curves and twists.

The complexity of all the different paths of water. And yet, too, the harmony with which they seem to connect and join together.

I suspect that many of us may not think that the lives of our most noteworthy leaders look this way. We probably assume that they’re the opposite in fact—straight, driven, relentless, unstoppable, shoving everything to the sides in the quest for their singular success and greatness. If only we could be like them….

The problem is that the assumption is almost never right. Their Rivers are as jumbled and crooked as yours.

The lives of nearly everyone I use in my history-based approach to leadership development involve the sort of back-and-forth motion that is captured in this photo. Even if we just focus on the people mentioned in some of this month’s Just One Minute message will show you the truth of my statement.

George Washington (depicted in the statue) wanted more than anything else to be a British officer. It was a goal he adopted after his father had died; his older brother went off on a British military expedition and it seemed to George that here was at last a purpose worth pursuing. But his ambition will be blown apart by events far larger than he.

Abraham Lincoln only knew that he wanted to succeed in a big way and, to use a phrase from our own tme, “to make a difference.” He failed half-a-dozen times and only succeeded in the most important election of his life because a substantial portion of Americans refused to vote for anyone from the north. His ambition will be burdened by a degree of death and violence—a lot of it at his personal order—that would have appalled him in civilian life.

Over on the You section, Martin Luther King Jr wouldn’t have guessed that barely ten years after some of his most important early successes he would be nearly a forgotten and overlooked byword in the American protest movements of 1968.

And so it goes.

You should take heart that the reality of these American leaders and thousands more like them fundamentally reflect many of the situations, dynamics, and challenges of your own experience.

One more thing for you to check on in the photo.

Beside all the memorable aspects of the image, there is a very dangerous unspoken assumption buried in the beauty. That’s the assumption that you can achieve the elevated perspective of the photographer. You can’t—and I mean can’t—get the distance from your daily reality on this earth to be able to see such scope and sweep. The best thing for which to strive, in my view, is to gain the knowledge, experience, and wisdom it requires for you to get your mind’s eye even slightly upward so as to envision what’s ahead, what’s behind, what’s to the left and to the right and how all these things fit and work together. You can use a spiritual foundation for ultimately entering an exalted perspective. But that’s your choice, your call, your private business. Not mine.

My business is to help you stand up in the canoe without the thing tipping over. From there you can look more sharply in every direction and read everything there is to read from the signs around you. History—done well—can help you stand up.