Swans and a Lesson on the Lake

SwanHad an imminent cold snap been pressing in on the region the swans may have been in peril. But as it was with the air temperature already above freezing they were merely inconvenienced. The lake was almost entirely covered with a sheet of ice that was too thin for the swans to stand on but too thick to swim through. And so they sat, each in their own perforation in the ice.

It was on my morning commute that I spotted them as I drove by the lake. I immediately parked along the road, work was going to have to wait this day. Grabbing my binoculars, I walked to the shore near the swans. There were six of them, and it was odd to see these majestic birds in such an awkward predicament.

One juvenile swan attempted to swim over to another. But he could only gain an inch at a time with each budge against the ice. Another young swan tried getting his feet out ahead of him and in a brief, dramatic thrashing he was able to make a foot of progress but then gave up. Another swan that appeared to be a full adult tried another method that was more effective and more gracefully fitting of a swan. He would lift his chest and swim forward, breaking the ice by laying his body down on top of it. With each movement an odd keew sound emanated from the ice, like someone twanging a high-tension cable.

Meanwhile, right along the shore in a patch of open water a small flock of mallards swam freely. One paddled over to the edge of the ice and looked at the swans with a look of bemusement. A new pair of ducks came in for a landing. However, they overshot the open water. The drake dropped into the ice with a thunk, immediately coming to a halt. The hen was coming in just behind and to the right of him, and seeing her mate’s descent from flight to plight she quickly aborted her own landing, taking back to the air.

After creating some space for himself, the elder swan suddenly spread his grand white wings and launched himself free from the hole he had created. The other five seemed to say, “Well, ok, I guess that works, too,” and the flock joined together in taxiing down the frozen runway. When swans take off they will run across the surface of the water for a long way, their big, webbed feet slapping the lake with a WHAP-WHAP-WHAP! But on the delicate layer of ice the sound instead was a TAK-TAK-TAK. And then they were gone.

Such an event should simply be left for what it is. It seems a shame to try to derive some meaning or divine some human lesson from this moment. Nonetheless I will. What I took from this experience, in addition to a gossamer memory, is that even in the awkward moments there is grace and beauty to be found. Also, when faced with a challenge we should stick with what we’re good at. If that doesn’t work, adapt. If that still doesn’t work, find something else you’re good at. Work together with others and get them to join you. Soon all will be soaring.


Image courtesy of dan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Life Size Leadership


“I want to be the leader!” called out a little girl as she got on her bike. “I want to be the leader!” yelled another girl. As the group of young kids headed off on another adventure I stood there pondering this passionate display of leadership that was so incredibly full of life. And I wondered why it shrinks as we get older.

How big is leadership? It’s bigger than even youthful exuberance and confidence. It’s as big as life. Because leadership is life. We are born with an innate desire for leadership that comes from the basic instinct to adapt and grow and become.

But then we begin to stuff it into organizational boxes and build walls around it. Pretty soon the walls restrict leadership to a select chosen few and the sign on the door reads, “Managers only.” For all the unchosen, “I want to be a  leader!” is soon replaced with “It’s not my job,” “I don’t have the authority,” or “Why doesn’t somebody do something?”

How do we take down these walls and bring leadership back to life?

Leadership is bigger than management. When you talk about management, call it management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. When you talk about really good management, call it good management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. When you talk about upper management, call it upper management or executive management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. Talk about how important it is for managers to be leaders but don’t suggest that only managers can be leaders. Down comes a wall.

Leadership is bigger than business. Talk about the role of leadership in business. But don’t suggest, intentionally or unintentionally, that leadership happens only in the context of running a business. Running a business is management, and it should be guided by good leadership. Leadership happens in boardrooms, and it happens at dinner tables and on playgrounds and at checkout lines. A leadership discussion can be about profits, or it can be about dreams or bullies or heartbreak or 10 pm curfews or what we’re going to do next. Don’t teach leadership as an occupational skill in business school, teach it as a life skill in kindergarten. Talk about leadership in the full context of life and walls start falling down all over the place.

Leadership is bigger than our boxes and walls. Fascinating things happen when we take down the walls we have built around leadership and open it up to everyone. People grow. Their eyes are opened to see they have the permission and ability and responsibility to lead. Their hearts are opened to the unique purpose they have to serve.

Managers are set free to be the leaders they are truly meant to be. Youth are no longer fettered with the label of “future leaders” and they live as leaders today. Citizens take a stand for justice because it is influence, not authority, that leads real lasting change. Groups of people who by their race or gender or other physical characteristics have often found themselves on the outside come to see that they are leaders by their own choice.

Service, influence, relationship, trust, community, vision  – this is the stuff of leadership. This is the stuff of life.

Let’s stop making leadership so much smaller than it really is. Let’s exuberantly declare, “I want to be a leader!” Let each and every single one of us boldly claim, “I am a leader!” Let’s set leadership free to be life size.