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The 'brave, noble, divinely foolish' acts of leadership

Tori McClure
Tori Murden McClure was the the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She is the President (elect) of Spalding University, a Trustee of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and author of the 2009 memoir "A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean."

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.

By Tori McClure

 |  March 19, 2010; 2:44 PM ET |  Category:  Personal Leadership Journey Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Thoroughly enjoyed Tori's comments, Leadership is a personal strength which is developed early in ones life and in it's purest form is shared by all that come in contact with that special leader who has the gift.

Posted by: edaster | March 20, 2010 10:07 PM

'The hard truth is that precious few people are capable of anything approaching the requisite self-mastery for great leadership, and even fewer still of those are charismatic enough to gain enough followers to make a meaningful difference.'

You can say that again, just look at today's GOP. . .

Posted by: kenhyde | March 20, 2010 8:18 PM

"She witnessed our planet from a perspective that most of us cannot even imagine. "

Regardless of how much nonsense you write about it, insanity is still insanity.

But thanks for playing.

Posted by: dubya1938 | March 20, 2010 12:50 PM

McClure was quite sensible and correct in saying that "one can become a truly great leader without self-mastery." However, she finds her boat quite adrift when she then starts yammering about how everyone is capable of being heroic and a great leader. The hard truth is that precious few people are capable of anything approaching the requisite self-mastery for great leadership, and even fewer still of those are charismatic enough to gain enough followers to make a meaningful difference. Once one recognizes that great leaders must first rule themselves, and further that, as our nation's expanding waistline and the growing chorus of demands from all sectors of society for a government bailout, among many other things, should conclusively demonstrate, few are even trying to rule themselves, and our society is structured to thrust just about every temptation imaginable in the face of those who are making a real effort to do so. Any talk of great leadership also necessitates a very elitist approach to politics and other aspects of social organization. That's the way it is, and although McClure is probably a decent motivational speaker and obviously a good rower, she also has a relatively empty head if she cannot see this.

Posted by: jfetter1 | March 20, 2010 8:32 AM

If you want me to talk for three hours I can start now. If you want me to talk for three minutes, I'll need three days to prepare. Ideas percolate when you start thinking about how to be your worse self. For better or worse do the right thing.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 20, 2010 6:43 AM

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