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Leadership lessons from nature

Talking plum

It was a perfect day in Seattle yesterday, which doesn’t happen that often. 80 degrees, bright sun, mountains clear, soft breeze. Despite my gratitude, I still found myself speeding frantically from place to place, wishing I could stop and enjoy.

My mind sounded something like: “OK time to drive downtown for acupuncture, oops gotta take the dogs because must be at vet on time for Francine’s owie, which means Kona has to sit in the car, and what about walking them? blah blah blah…”

When I finally did get to take the creatures for a walk in the gorgeous sun along Lake Washington, I found my mind was still racing, jumping from worry to worry like a little stress frog. “What about dinner? What about that meeting I have to get ready for tomorrow? I should eat something healthy.  I want ice cream!”

Coming up the hill, huffing and sweating, dogs pulling and sniffing and mind racing, out of the corner of my eye I notice something red sitting on top of a fence post. I glance up briefly and note the house seems deserted – under construction – and no car in the driveway. “Red thing is probably just more garbage.”

Then I notice there is a tree with the same red shapes hiding in the branches. I look down at the fence post again, and realize it’s a plum. Dusky red with a galaxy of pale green spots across the belly, perfectly round with a heart-shaped top, stem still attached. “Probably rotten on the bottom” says mind.

Quiet voice says “pick me up,” so I do. The plum says “look at me, smell me” so I do. And the world fades, there’s just this absolutely perfect plum in my hand, a perfect fit, and warm, and soft, and smelling like heaven.

I remember: we live in a world where things like this happen all the time. The world makes plums for us, they’re everywhere, really, all we have to do is let our eyes be caught by them, and listen to them when they ask “look at me,  smell me, taste me.”

Today, see who or what talks to you, and listen. Let yourself be transported.

A Fish Tale

This weekend I spent a bunch of time fishing for salmon on the Southeast shore of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. My partner loves to fish, and if I want to spend time with her during fishing season, I pretty much need to be standing next to her on the beach, fishing pole in hand. It’s a little awkward for me, because I’m actually allergic to fish – when I eat it my face blows up like a red balloon and I stop breathing. But I figured touching it would be OK and I showed up to fish on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, for a total of about 10 hours.

While I was staring at my bobber in the gray waves, I had a lot of time to think about the amazing parallels between following your calling and fishing.

It’s the fishing, not the fish

If you’re going to love fishing, you have to actually love ALL of it. Waiting for hours not knowing if you’ll ever catch anything, cutting heads off of herring, picking the gazillionth wad of seaweed off your line, putting up with the chatty guy next to you who won’t quit smoking, and catching all sorts of things you don’t really want.

For example, I caught 13 bullheads, a nasty little inedible fish with stingers on its gills. No one else on the beach caught this many, and my partner and her family started calling me “bullhead” I was catching so many. For a while I didn’t mind, because it gave me something to busy myself with, an illusion of progress.

You have to love the process of fishing, and let go of whether you’ll catch any actual salmon, while at the same time believing with all your heart that the big silver fish of your dreams is just waiting for you to cast one more time.

After spending so much time with my pole hanging over the water, bundled up against the August cold (never got above 70, thick cloud cover) I got into a kind of zen state. I stopped caring so much about whether I’d catch one as big as annoying-smoking-man’s. I started to appreciate my growing skill in casting, removing hooks from bullheads without hurting them and looking like I knew what I was doing.

And then, Sunday night at 8:45, I pulled in my very first wild salmon, all by myself. I thought my arms were going to fall off, and I felt like God herself had sent me that fish. Made of rain, pissed off, bright silver and stronger than you’d think a fish could be. Made all the waiting, cold and irritation more than worth it. And gave me lots of energy to keep fishing.

So my questions for you are:

What’s your dream fish? What would make you feel like singing and doing a crazy dance on the beach in front of everyone?

What are your bullheads? The things that give you the illusion of progress, but are actually distractions?

What do you have to learn to love in order to love your calling?

A dramatic leadership lesson from the bird world

The other morning I was in the small park near my house with my dog. I was talking to a neighbor, when a loud cawing noise caught our attention. We looked out across the athletic field and saw a bald eagle flying straight toward us, trailed by 5 or 6 very cranky-sounding crows. Now, this is a park in the middle of South Seattle, not near water, not near any hills. Needless to say a bald eagle in our ‘hood was a surprise. What happened next nearly made us fall over.

As the eagle came toward us, it banked straight upward over our heads, closely followed by the crows, cawing madly. (There are two crow’s nests in this park and they’re already re-building for spring. Crow babies are an eagle snack favorite.)

As the eagle crested a big-leaf maple, it did a quick flip in the air and caught a crow in its talons, flipped back over and flew away. The crows got quiet fast, and disbursed quickly.

I thought about this amazing sight all day and shared it with several people. I found my storyline switching from one of sympathy for the crow to “if that crow hadn’t been trying to up the eagle’s…ahem…tail…it wouldn’t have gotten caught.”

So here’s the leadership lesson I took away:

If you’re chasing something bigger than you, make sure you’re ready for it. Do what you can to understand the nature of your target and get ready to be nimble if it starts to chase you back! And, if you’re feeling chased by worries, sometimes turning around and tackling one is the best approach.