The 'brave, noble, divinely foolish' acts of leadership
Last Sunday, Katie Spotz became the youngest person to row solo across an ocean. The most common question she will face is "Why?" The motivations of those who venture into the unknown are subtle and hard to pin down. In material terms, crossing an ocean in a rowboat is a fruitless task. If Spotz's journey had been solely about raising money for charity, there are more efficient ways go about it.
Strong men have died trying to row across oceans, so why would a bright young woman take such a risk?
After Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempted around-the-world flight, Walter Lippmann wrote:
"The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart's adventure. They are things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.
No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky."
Katie Spotz pulled her little rowboat away from civilization and gazed upon a horizon that predates the existence of man. She witnessed our planet from a perspective that most of us cannot even imagine. Between nasty weather systems, she enjoyed idyllic days and nights. As she secured her deck hatches for the evening, she could watch the sunset light up the full dome of the sky with the most intense hues of red, orange and purple.
She rowed through rising mists, followed rainbows, and tracked the flights of shooting stars. On clear nights the Milky Way would paint a highway of light across her night and bioluminescent shrimp and plankton would light the ocean beneath her. She encountered sea creatures of many shapes and sizes, but, more important, she encountered herself.
In the rush of what we call civilized life, few of us take sufficient time to get to know ourselves. No one can become a truly great leader without self-mastery. We cannot lead others if we cannot first lead our own weaker selves to learn patience, endurance, resourcefulness, intellectual flexibility, and strength of will.
It is by surpassing our own limits that we begin to understand the vast reach of human imagination and ingenuity. If we can lead ourselves to be willfully optimistic, comfortable with uncertainty, and persistent in the face of adversity, we can lead others to do the same.
Compared to urban adventures like fighting poverty, ignorance, cultural mistrust, or environmental degradation, rowing alone across an ocean is easy. But the skills young Katie Spotz has mastered are the exact same skills needed to make a difference in the pick-and-shovel work of the "civilized" world.
All of us have oceans to traverse. We all face waves. We all tangle with storms. We are a blend of dust and divinity. We are all mortal, and we are all capable of being heroic. We may not succeed in stealing fire from heaven, but the majesty of humanity lies in our willingness to keep trying.
March 19, 2010; 2:44 PM ET |
Personal Leadership Journey
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