One Leader’s Perspective
I am fortunate to live in the great state of Ohio. Anyone who has traveled the state or studied geography knows that much of this beautiful land is encircled by the Ohio River. This majestic river is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at Pittsburgh, it flows northwest out of Pennsylvania, then in a southwesterly direction to join the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, after an expansive course of 981 miles. It marks several state boundaries including Ohio-West Virginia, Ohio-Kentucky, Indiana-Kentucky, and Illinois-Kentucky. The Ohio River contributes more water to the Mississippi than does any other tributary and drains an area of 203,900 square miles. The river’s valley is narrow, with an average width of less than 1/2 mile between Pittsburgh and Wheeling (W.Va.), a little more than 1 wide mile from Cincinnati (Ohio) to Louisville (Ky.) and somewhat greater in width below Louisville.
Geographically, the river starts out rather narrow and continues to widen on its grand journey toward the great Mississippi River. Hundreds of years ago members of the Erie Indian tribe traveled this part of the present United States. I am sure their journeys often required them to cross the Ohio River. They must have discovered something that is important for leaders to remember even today. The time to cross a river is before it gets too wide.
One of the most remarkable things about our lives is that there are times when directions can be easily changed. This is true of our business, or our personal lives. American poet and essayist James Russell Lowell once said, “Once to every man and nation, Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side.” Life is a series of choices and alternatives. Often, usually early in the decision making process, there are numerous opportunities to change one’s course or take another direction. In the early stages the options often remain open to reverse one’s decision. As with my earlier analogy, it is easy to cross the river before it gets too wide. As time goes by our actions and habits tend to become fixed unless we are on guard against this human tendency. It becomes far too easy for us to become fixed in both our thinking and our methods and to dwell on one side of the river long after we should have crossed. We can cross it by changing the things we do, or by doing the right things today.
We can all learn a lesson from the recent presidential election of 2000. The problem with indecision 2000 was an incredible vacuum of leadership on the American political scene. In the 30plus days it took to decide the presidential election there were few real winners and perhaps permanent damage was inflicted on our State and Federal judicial systems, as raw partisanship appeared to prevail. In what seemed like the “election from the netherworld” most Americans were appalled to see the results of a Presidential election turned over from the voters and into the hands of lawyers and judges. In the December 10th edition of Time.com, Nancy Gibbs wrote, “The judges were humbled, at war with one another over whose vision of justice would prevail. The lawyers were as well, when they were reduced to citing rulings against them in one case to help them win another. The commentariat that had confidently scripted a coda to this long chorale were practically speechless by Saturday night. Even the Constitution itself seemed more like tissue than stone, as people peered its text to find the meaning they sought.” What went wrong?
Everyone knew the election was close both nationally and particularly in the state of Florida. Even the television networks called Florida early for Vice President Gore and later retracted the prognostication as election night hung in the balance. The morning after is when leadership should have boldly arisen. Within the next few days leadership was required from both political camps to meet together and agree on a rapid resolution to an important and potentially damaging process. Both political parties could have met together and agreed how they would request votes to be counted statewide in a fair and consistent manner. This could have occurred before numerous deadlines would close options and opportunities for fairness to all Florida voters. The time to cross a river is before it gets too wide. Sadly, no senior elected official appeared to even suggest such a process! Not a single congressmen or respected elder statesman was willing to step out of political self-interest and offer a vision of rapid resolution and fairness for the voters. Instead, partisanship ruled the day and real political leadership was replaced by talking heads and media commentators.
The result of this void of political leadership was to remove the election process from the voters and their appointed representatives and give it to a few hundred attorneys and judges. I don’t mean to be critical of the Supreme Court of the United States. It was forced to constitutionally break new ground and I am convinced its members would have rather avoided the entire murky situation brought before them. In reality, the Supreme Court actually did demonstrate leadership not because they necessarily wanted to, but because little real political leadership occurred before it reached them! The country had been put through enough and it was time for decisiveness to avert a Constitutional crises. From their perspective in viewing the complex case presented to them, it was time to cross the river before it got too wide. This recent political event has many lessons for us in both our business and personal lives.
The price of crossing the river gets higher as the river gets wider. If we go down one side of the river too far the principle of inertia will take over and direct our lives for us. A small problem can be solved or overcome with little effort or attention. However, a large problem will require a great amount of time and effort because conditions allowed it to feed on itself and its misdirected energy. For most of us there is a need to often rethink our priorities. What events are occurring in our careers that we have allowed to go on far to long? What decisions in our professional roles have we avoided? What opportunities in our personal lives have we either missed or neglected because we have become too distracted? Remember, the time to cross a river is before it gets too wide. In the 21st century it is far too easy and common for individuals to spend their lives on roads that go nowhere. Sound leadership requires honest self-reflection and humility. Every leader makes mistakes and errors. The mature ones realize and accept this fact without blaming others or creating scapegoats. They are also willing to change course or direction when they realize a mistake has been made. As leaders we must be vigilant in understanding that action early on is far easier than a reaction later on. The farther we go without addressing an issue, the more difficult it is to cross the river.
As I look over my career I can see many situations where I walked down one side of the river far too long before crossing it. I can remember as a young salesman in my mid-twenties I was asked to quote on a large sub-station transformer. The factory I represented under-quoted the transformer and would have lost money on the order. Being afraid of losing my largest order of the year, I was reluctant to go back to the customer immediately and tell him the factory made a big mistake. Our new quote would be thousands of dollars higher than the one we originally signed and committed ourselves to. Beside, I felt ethically responsible to honor our original quotation. However, I didn’t respond quickly enough and allowed far too much time to pass before I contacted the customer in an effort to solve the problem. I kept the order at the new quotation price but the end result of waiting to cross the river was very negative. The factory was angry, the customer was angry and no one was really satisfied, including me!
Look at your present career situation. Are there individuals, issues or programs you have been unwilling to address? Or on a personal note, are there troubles or loving relationships that need more of your nurturing? Ed Oakley and Doug Krug point out a significant understanding. They write, “Though we may not always be able to choose the circumstances ourselves, we can choose how werespond to them. We have a choice every moment of every day about how we look at circumstances, about what attitude we will have in reference to them. Though it may not always be easy in difficult situations to maintain the most effective attitude, or respond effectively, we do have the choice.” One of the duties of leadership is to bring out the best in others, and that includesourselves. We are at our best when we are willing to cross the river by changing the things we do or how we think!
So what if you are now facing a raging river at its widest possible point? No situation is totally hopeless. We can’t always start over but we can start from where we are now! The river never gets too wide to cross it if we are willing to pay the price. However, instead of crossing the river with one step, it may require building a bridge of steel and concrete. It may not be easy to solve a complex problem or heal a gaping personal wound, but if we take a new direction…tomorrow will be slightly better than today! It may take more time, investment and effort but starting from where we are now is better than not starting at all. Remember my earlier comment about the Supreme Court of the United States. A political powder keg had come before them because a broad lack of political leadership had allowed it to get to the point of last resort. They had a difficult and potentially divisive decision to make among themselves. They couldn’t start over again but they could start from where they were! They paid the price and crossed the river. The legal constitutional fallout may haunt our nation for many years to come, but they were willing to pay the price.
In conclusion, as leaders we all have a tendency to become distracted by seemingly urgent problems and to dismiss other problems or situations as trivial and unimportant. We tend to travel down one side of the river stream in a fixed direction because it is comfortable and we are all creatures of habit. But the farther we travel down one side of a river, the more likely we are to continue on that side. Don’t forget…the time to cross a river is before it gets too wide!
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About the author:
Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 9 years that of Regional Sales Manager. He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. In August of 2000, Greg completed his studies for a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University. He is the founder of weLEAD Incorporated.
Gibbs, Nancy. (December 10, 2000). Before honor comes humility, Proverbs says, and last week seemed designed to bring everyone to their knees. Time.Com
Lowell, James Russell. (1925). The Complete Poetical Works Of James Russell Lowell: Cambridge Edition. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Oakley, Ed & Krug, Doug, (1994). Enlightened Leadership – Getting to the Heart of Change. Publisher: Simon & Schuster.