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The Parable Of The Empty Boat

[Parable provided by Marshall Goldsmith in Ken Blanchard's, Servant Leadership in Action.]

A young farmer laboriously paddled his boat up the river to deliver his produce to the village. It was a hot day, and he wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. As he looked ahead, he spied another vessel, heading rapidly downstream toward his boat. He rowed furiously to get out of the way, but it didn't seem to help.

He shouted, "CHANGE DIRECTION! YOU ARE GOING TO HIT ME!" to no avail - the vessel hit his boat with a violent thud. He cried out, "You Idiot! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river?!"

As he glared into the boat, seeking out the individual responsible for the accident, he realized no one was there. He had been screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was floating downstream with the current.

We behave one way when we believe there is another person at the helm. We can blame that stupid, uncaring person for our misfortune. This blaming permits us to get angry, act out, assign blame, and play the victim. We behave more calmly when we learn that it's an empty boat. With no available scapegoat, we can't get upset. We make peace with the fact that our misfortune was the result of fate or bad luck. We may even laugh at the absurdity of a random unmanned boat finding a way to collide with us in a vast body of water.

The moral: there is never anyone in the other boat. (p. 66-67).

I thought about this parable many times this week. It was a rough week - not much went as planned. There were several times I wanted to become upset at the events I was experiencing and there were even times I wanted to blame others for my misfortune. However, I had to remind myself to re-look at the events and realize that there wasn't "anyone else in the boat." When I was able to leverage this insight, I felt immediate relief. Did I feel better? No - but, a certain amount of stress left me as I had to own the experience. I couldn't let myself blame someone else. I couldn't allow myself to become lost in assigning blame to those that really had nothing to do with what I was experiencing.

Think about it - when you are upset or angry and jump to blame, how much time do you then commit to thinking about "that person" and what they did? It's really surprising how our believing "someone else is steering the boat" can detract us from our goals.

My encouragement for you: take this parable with you. Read it and remind yourself of it when you find yourself in those stressful moments. Regardless of the roles of others in your issues, you are ultimately responsible for you. As leaders, we need to remember this as our teams are watching how we handle stress and frustration. What type of example do you want to be for them?

Side note: One of the conversations I have had several times over the past few weeks has been on how the behaviors of leaders can shape the next generation of leaders... More to come with that...

As we enter into the Holiday Season, I would encourage you to live with grace; for you and for others. Be patient and stay curious. When you don't have the reason behind someone's actions, don't rush to your assumptions.

As Ray Dalio states, "It makes no sense to get frustrated when there's so much that you can do, and when life offers so many things to savor. There's nothing you can't accomplish if you think creatively and have the character to do the difficult things."

Wishing you a happy and blessed Holiday Season!


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