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Leadership Lessons From The Niagara River

This past week, I decided to do something spontaneous with a road trip to Niagara Falls.

Like many of you who are concerned with the threat of COVID, my family had to weigh the desire to enjoy the last days of summer while being safe. So within two days, we packed the car and off we went and I'm so glad I did.

Besides the obvious benefits of changing environments and discovering new places with the family, I took the time to take a much-needed break from social media, emails, and career development training activities. Being surrounded by so much natural beauty in nature, the many bodies of water (lake and rivers) not only felt rejuvenated my body and soul but also stimulated my mind. I began to muse at the power of nature and the many lessons that were in front of me.

Let me share three main reflections with you.

Cherish the power of the present moment.

As I watched the Niagara river waters flow, powerful, rebellious yet gracefully into the abyss creating this wonder of the world, it reminded me of Heraclitus (Greek philosopher) he once said:

“No man can step into the same river twice because is not the same man nor the same river”

He was completely on point. Heraclitus' observation was over two millennia ago, it still rings true to this day. A river only flows in one direction so the water that touches your skin at this very moment will never repeat. Life acts in the same way, where one fleeting moment comes and goes.

What this means is that as leaders, we need to assess the way we are approaching decision making. This translates to developing acute awareness. Awareness of self, of others, of the reality and the facts, as well as the choices available. Awareness of the present as a unique opportunity to choose the attitudes in which we approach life challenges.

So let’s imagine for a second a situation that frustrates you at work or home. What if instead of reacting to this particular situation, you pause for a split second and ask yourself, what do I want to define this moment as? What if this moment was your last on earth, how would you choose to react then? How do you wish to feel at the end of your day? Challenging yourself to this frame of mind will take you away from the fire drill of the day and allow you to focus on the big picture. Again, by harnessing the power of now, you can be less reactive and more proactive leading to fulfillment.

What is strong is soft.

One part that really stood up to me is the three sisters islands. There are three small islets that are in right in the middle of the river. Millenia ago these islands were a peninsula that was eventually divided into three by the constant and merciless pounding of the waters.

This really resonated with me and analogous to leadership. One must be determined, persistent, and patient to get the results we want. Like water, a leader will find away. It might now be immediate, it might take longer yet it will prevail and no matter the obstacle, a leader always finds the way to get to their objective. Also, like water, a leader must be flexible and moldable in order to adapt and get to it’s to where it needs to go. Lao Tzu has an amazing quote that perfectly summarizes this:

“Water is fluid, soft, yielding. But whatever would wear away rock, which is rigid and can not yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. What is strong is soft.”

Leadership is like a river.

Walking along the Niagara River trails and observing its descent, going through its various traverses, I couldn't help but think about how this relates to the leadership development journey. There will be moments as a leader you will feel pulled to the bottom and tossed aside. At others, you will experience a moment of tranquility before a sudden drop not knowing where you will end up.

Whether you lead in the workplace or in your personal setting, we all can agree that the leadership path is fraught with uncertainty. Luckily, as you emerge from one situation to another, try to keep a mastery mindset as opposed to a performance-oriented mindset. The main difference with the two is that with a mastery mindset you will focus on the lessons learned through the experiences as opposed to the focus on the performance or outcome. You will focus on the best you can be and open to learning opportunities. A mastery mindset is proven to lead to high intrinsic motivation and long term sustainable success. A few useful questions that you can deploy when you feel your mind is going into negative mode are: What are the opportunities for learning and for growth for myself? And for the people around me? What key lesson from this situation will make me a better leader? In the end, like a river arriving at the ocean, a leaders’ journey will lead you where you are intended to be, is all about having the right mindset to sustain the journey. I hope that these observations are of use to you in your journey. Moreover, I like to invite you to the next time you are going on a road trip, be attentive to what lessons are hidden in plain sight.


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