Leadership: Like a Swan in the Rain

Like a swan in the rain
It's incredibly difficult to see, but in the very middle of this image is a beautiful white swan. I saw this swan as I was standing in...well...I was going to the bathroom. I watched the swan for about thirty seconds. What was remarkable about this bird is that despite the fact that it was absolutely pouring rain the swan, unabated by the rain, went about his/her normal business (I'm not quite sure what "normal swan business" is, but I'm pretty sure he/she was doing it).

This image made me think of a conversation I had with a professor earlier that day. He told me about a conversation he heard about between two college presidents. The first president was early in his presidency; the second had been a president for many years. The young man asked the "veteran" for some words of wisdom to "make it" over the long haul. The veteran's response, "never waste a good crisis."

The comment was in reference to the financial collapse of 2008. The point the elder gentleman was trying to make, was that moments of crisis provide opportunities to introduce certain programs or ideas that if things were stable would have been ignored, or even worse, feared because of the potential of disrupting the status quo or marginal gains the school was experiencing.

This caused me to think broadly about leadership. The best leaders, at a minimum, are able to maintain "normal swan business."  The best leaders use crises to create something.

Gordon College in Argentina
I was talking to a friend of mine that is leading a group of students on a short-term missions trip. This is her first missions trip so she is quite anxious. I can relate. A few years back, at the seasoned age of 22, I led the men's basketball team at Gordon College on a trip to Argentina (some of my players were 21. I have no idea why their parents trusted me).  The biggest thing I learned from this experience was the value of a leader simply keeping his or her cool.  For better or for worse I wasn't as much concerned with the player's spiritual development as I was them feeling confident that I had things under control (a stretch at moments to be sure). It should be noted, although I think I kept my cool while actually in the country, as soon as I returned to the States I developed shingles. Some claim that shingles is not a result of stress and that it is actually a virus.


Aaron Trigg in Argentina
It applies to athletics as well. There is something comforting knowing that a player is relaxed when the stakes are at their highest. I played with and coached a player named Aaron Trigg at Gordon. Aaron, simply put, thought he was the best player on the court. Always. Whether Aaron took the final shot or not, I knew that he was comfortable in the moment. As a result, even as a coach, I felt calm.

There has been 46,000,000 books written on leadership (that's a rough estimate). In fact certain authors, it seems, exclusively publish on leadership (not to name any names...).
That Maxwell guy sure knows a lot about leadership...
Part of me wonders if we assign the term "leader" to too many people, and thus dilute the word. It almost feels like if we read/own enough books about leadership, then eventually we will find someone that thinks we should classified as a leader. Leadership is a complex thing, but we have overcomplicated matters by reducing leadership into 4,987 different theories all saying the exact thing.

Pretty simple, right?
I think there is only one litmus test for leadership and this is the ability to act calm and wise when the flood waters are rising.

I honestly think the topic can be summarized into one phrase: "Keep calm and carry on."

 I love the TV show Friday Night Lights. In fact, I have spent the last 10 months trying to convince my wife that we should move to Texas just so our children (which we don't currently have) can grow up playing football. I even wrote a short story based on the movie while I was in college (I mentioned the story in a previous blog post). I love football and I think the show's producers, actors, and writers did a great job (Aside from season 2, which was awful. Stupid writer's strike...).

I like the show, But I love Coach Taylor.

Coach Taylor is equal parts Ghandi, Vince Lombardi, your grandfather, General Patton and Abraham Lincoln. What makes him special is his unflappable ability to lead. He handles everything from his team playing for a state championship (which in Texas holds about the same weight as a war), to one of his players killing a guy (Seriously. I'm telling you season 2 is a little over the top). But he basically always leads well; and does so by being the constant.  I so strongly champion Friday Night Lights and Coach Taylor that I feel secure endorsing, for the first time, a product on this blog. In fact, if you own any John Maxwell books, sell them and buy these DVD's.

Not true.
I'm not saying leadership is easy. In fact, I'm saying the opposite. There is only a very small percentage of the population that is equipped to lead. Perhaps this explains why we see so many leaders fail both morally and otherwise. But herein lies the problem: not everyone should be a leader! It should be reserved for the select few that can maintain a level head in the most adverse of situation. You know, like a swan in the rain.

My old basketball coach used to quote General Patton after a sloppy, defensive game. Apparently Patton, at the conclusion of an intense and bloody battle, looked across the field and said, "I love it. God help me, I do love it so." Frankly, I think this is a little twisted, and I hate applying war metaphors to daily life (yes, you Kellen Winslow), but there is some truth in this. True leaders, when the circumstances demand it, do just that - lead.


  1. So true. I was thinking this week about how education programs, elementary through advanced degrees, almost invariably strive to train students as "leaders in a global economy" in their purpose statements. But it doesn't make sense. I almost wish they would focus their attention on teaching kids to be wise consumers and follow with a purpose, to choose a cause/person/company they can believe in and support it well.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Erica. A good friend once told me that one of the biggest reasons he supports athletics is that you are forced to deal with failure and with playing various roles on a team. Most athletes inevitably have games in which the play poorly and play on teams where they aren't always the best player. Not that our educational system should tell students that a large percentage of them will "fail" but I do think there is some value in allowing kids to experience adversity and not continually emphasizing that "everyone is a winner." I suppose this gets about back to the all-important goal of training students to think critically.

    I'm curious though, what do you say to the student that is dead set on "changing the world?" I think someone I know even blogged on changing the world :) There seems to be a balance of encouraging this shoot-for-the-moon attitude, with healthy doses of reality. Your thoughts?

  3. I love this post, Keith! Especially your endorsement of Friday Night Lights. I am obsessed with that series - especially coach and Tami Taylor! :) Hope all is well! Love the blog!
    -Lindsey (Benson) Allenby

  4. Thanks, Lindsay! Sarah and I became slightly addicted to the show. By "slightly" I mean incredibly :)

    Thanks for the encouragement. Hope all is well.


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