Thursday, December 08, 2020

Pushing The River

Rivers, at least ones that have water all year, are rare here in southern Arizona. Most spend the bulk of the year as dry, sandy depressions in the desert. Any water is deep underground. Only when the thunderstorms of the monsoon come do they turn into rushing torrents that last, maybe, a day or a few hours.

That’s the interesting thing about rivers. They flow at their own pace, depending on how much water is in them and how steep the land is through which they flow. Steep mountain streams flow fast; broad, muddy rivers in the lowlands sometimes scarcely seem to flow at all. You can’t change this. It’s the way things are.

Events in our lives and businesses are like rivers. They have their own pace, depending on the geography of the circumstances. Sometimes they sweep us along and we feel close to drowning; other times their progress is agonizingly slow and turgid. Sometimes, like our desert rivers, they go underground or dry up completely.

But humans are impatient creatures. We want events to go at our pace, not theirs. So we try to push the river along faster.

Companies set themselves goals and raise expectations in their investors. Often they do this with virtually no regard to circumstances. Profits rose by a certain amount last quarter, or last year, so they must rise by more in the year to come. Sales must increase, so let’s find ways to make people buy. And, since you’re a leader, it’s your job to make this happen, on time, every time.

The river isn’t flowing fast enough? Get out there and push it. Push harder.

You can’t push the river. It’s flowing already and nothing much will change that rate of flow, save a thunderstorm or days of torrential rain. Can you produce that? I thought not. You can push and push, but all you’ll do is make waves and wear yourself out.

That’s exactly what too many leaders are doing today. To content those who expect them to change geography or generate a thunderstorm on cue, they push and they push, making lots of waves and accomplishing nothing at all—except exhausting themselves and their staff. Hey, look how hard I’m pushing. Look at the waves I’m making.

In Britain, there’s a well-known story of a Norse king called Canute. When his courtiers flattered him and claimed he could cause the world to bow to his will, he had them set his throne on the seashore. As the tide came in, Canute ordered it back. The king got wet feet and the courtiers, hopefully, learned something about setting realistic expectations. It’s a shame more CEOs don’t share Canute’s clarity about the limits of human endeavor.

Don’t push the river. Things will happen in their own time. So save your strength…and try to still be around when they do.

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