A series of desert walks leads to an insight about leadership at work.
At the trailing end of a peripatetic foursome, I look down the trail. The men have gone on ahead a little way; my sister and I are bringing up the rear. This late afternoon walk in the spring of 2011 can’t quite be dignified with the title of a wilderness hike: the mostly level, sandy trail is groomed, and boasts trail signs at every intersection. But it isn’t your everyday walk around the block either: we are in the midst of the distinctive flora of the Sonoran Desert.
Every vista offers desert versions of plants I know from home: marigold, mallow, honeysuckle, poppy. More enticingly, it offers plants not much found where there can be snow six months of the year: brittlebush, creosote, palo verde. And, of course, there are the cacti: saguaro, barrel, prickly pear, and more varieties of cholla than enough. Except for the occasional slight breeze, however, it is still. Except for the clink of our walking sticks, it is quiet. The fauna that presumably go with this delightful flora are nowhere to be seen. My sister and I judge this a likely consequence of walking in the heat of the day. Wise in the ways of the desert we are.
A week later, our visitors head home and the Big Guy and I head out on the trails again, just the two of us. This time I take point. The flora are unchanged—still spectacular—but today the fauna have come out to play. Itty-bitty lizards (their proper scientific name, I believe) skitter across my path; unidentified but varied birds flap up out of brush piles to perch on cactus arms and peep/pipe/sing/screech, depending on their variety; Gambel’s quails run around apparently aimlessly as is their wont, their unmistakeable topknots bobbing; and Harris antelope ground squirrels—chipmunk look-alikes to those of us from northern climes—give away perfectly good hiding spots by bolting for what they clearly think is even better cover. The desert seems, well, alive, if not downright crowded. Where were all these guys last week?
Over the next few weeks we tramp from one end of this county park to the other on numerous trails, at all times of day. Usually in the lead, I call out the animals I’m seeing, but the Big Guy usually misses them. One day, stopping to point pointlessly to where a lizard has just disappeared under a desert something-or-other, I am mentally transported back in time to 1998 and across space to Anchorage. A shopping respite from the six-day-per-week pace of this business trip has me standing amidst sweatshirts emblazoned with moose, puffins and the aurora borealis. A quintessentially Alaskan bumper sticker catches my eye. A drawing of a long line of Huskies’ butts, viewed from somewhere way back in the mushing chain, sports this adage: Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes. Funny and sort of gross, both at the same time.
Back in the desert again, I belatedly reach this insight: It isn’t the time of day, it’s the position in the walking group. Inadvertently ‘flushing game’, the lead walker sees all the wildlife that is on offer; any followers get only an occasional glimpse of a disappearing tail. Or butt, as the case may be.
Back at work a few weeks later, I am sitting in a meeting with a faithful client. Well, I’m not sitting, I’m standing by the whiteboard, as is my wont. I’m not highjacking the meeting: they pay me to record the comments, organize the ideas, lead the discussion. As for me, seeing the conceptual framework, having the ‘aha’ moment, finding the trail through the welter of detail—these are why I get up every morning.
As I turn back to the whiteboard to move some content—grouping things for better clarity based on something I have just ‘seen’—I remember that itty-bitty lizard’s mad dash across the path, invisible to the Big Guy just a few steps back. I look over my shoulder at my colleagues-of-the-day, and wonder if they find this trail we’re on as interesting, as much fun, as I do. Given their position in the walking troupe, not likely. It occurs to me that they might not even know what they’re missing.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells about a long-distance motorcycle trip with his young son, Chris. One day as they’re belting down the highway, Chris stands up behind his dad and looks over his shoulder, seeing the road coming at them for the first time. He exclaims in wonder, and Pirsig suddenly realizes that the kid’s less-than-inspiring normal view is the back of Pirsig’s leather jacket and head. No wonder the trip doesn’t seem as cool to him.
As we gain seniority in our various realms it can be easy to take the lead dog role as a matter of course. Sometimes, someone is paying us to do exactly that. Sometimes, though, it’s just habit. At work, we lead meetings; in church and community endeavours, we take charge of committees; with family and friends we host events and guide conversations. We start by meaning well, but we can end by leaving no space for others to step to the front. Sometimes the right thing is to step back and let another be the lead dog, to have the thrill of the different view. A view, if you will, of something other than our butts.