An Uncommon Risk

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Listen to “An Uncommon Risk” by Fred Smith


One of the most watched events of this century was Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. In so doing he became the first person to walk over the falls in 116 years and the first ever to walk right over the falls. If you saw it you probably remember the mist-obscured image of his dropping to one knee, fist-pumping, and then running to the end of the rope into the arms of his family. It was an astounding moment of personal victory.

I’ve not seen any leadership books so far based on Wallenda’s feat. Why not a best-seller titled “Five Keys to Walking An Organization Across Niagara Falls”? I suspect everyone knows the singular skills required to accomplish such a dangerous challenge are rare and obviously limited to a very few. No one would expect to read a management book or hear a corporate motivational talk on Nik’s perilous trek across Niagara.

Yet, as a result of Steven Spielberg’s inspiring movie “Lincoln” based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s prize-winning book “A Team of Rivals” we were right in expecting to see a flood of titles telling us how to put together similar teams of rivals, enemies, and dissenting voices. In fact, it is virtually a rule of leadership now that instead of drawing together a tightly bound group of people with identical beliefs and agendas there would be a combination who debate, argue, and press for different outcomes. Unfortunately, that has never been the norm. Many leaders and certainly all demagogues want just the opposite. Not only autocratic leaders demand agreement or token opposition but so do the people who follow and carefully guard their membership in the inner ring. It’s not cynicism to say we should not be disappointed or surprised. It is difficult to find any group of people who actually value continuous dissension and certainly not to the extent of Lincoln’s Cabinet. Far more than disagreement, it was literal hatred of each other. It is easy to talk about civility and the worth of differing opinions but most who have lived with intense differences have found it more exhausting than energizing. What we fail to understand is the uncommon risk in Lincoln’s accomplishment and its being limited to a very few desiring or capable of such a feat. It was as much a unique individual skill as Nik Wallenda’s and just as likely not to be repeated by more than a handful in history. As Kearns writes about Lincoln, “His success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy—can also be impressive political resources.”

A Common Purpose

One other instance of the same principle comes to mind. James I of England was faced with a split kingdom and needed a means to create a common purpose among men who were determined to defeat each other at any cost to the country. The Scottish Presbyterians were intent on doing away with the hierarchy of the powerful Anglican bishops. Puritans who despised the elitism of the English church were also a growing influence in a Parliament anxious to expand their own powers. On their part, the bishops were anxious to protect their exceptional power, privilege, and wealth. If the Puritans and Presbyterians were to prevail it would mean the end not only of their primacy but that of the King. “No bishop, no King.” In 1604 James convened the Hampton Court Conference for the express purpose of creating a new translation of Scripture that would resolve the inconsistencies and political differences between the Bishop’s Bible and the Geneva Bible. To do that, he appointed 54 scholars with deep and strongly held theological differences. It was either a recipe for disaster or a stroke of genius. It turned out to be the latter with the result being the publication in 1611 of what we know as the King James Bible. It was a translation intended to draw together the whole nation by giving divided people a common religious language. As it turns out, it was also Abraham Lincoln’s mastery of the King James language that was such a part of saving our own union hundreds of years later.

There is something to be learned from the skills necessary to create a “team of rivals.” It is far different from brinkmanship or mere diversity. It is daring to create a vision that is compelling and beyond the limited understanding and determined self-interest of either party. It is not playing to the base or the whims of the leader but being committed to the future of a corporation, church or nation. It is an act of faith. Such a moment is rare but still possible.


Art by Godofredo Stuart

You can purchase my book “Where The Light Divides” here.



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