Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Short Story

Last week's NetHope Summit in San Jose was a memorable whirlwind immersion in new technology. Our left-brain technology loving side was well fed. In the right-brain column were all the relationships that formed and deepened, both among our members, and with our corporate partners; and a bit of storytelling introduced at the outset.

I retold a story I heard In March at a gathering of NGO managers. I think it tells us something about leadership. It also tells us about the heart of strategy. I'll let the story speak for itself:

A Tree in Zaire

Four Peace Corps volunteers were making their way in a large Land Rover to a village in what was then Zaire. There was a single dirt road through a forest. A few kilometers from the village they discovered a large tree that had fallen, blocking the road. A villager was on top of the log chopping away with a hand-held axe. Wood chips were flying in every direction, but he was making little progress. The volunteers asked him to step aside. They pulled a cable from the winch in front of the truck and wrapped it around the tree. They tried the winch first, without success. Putting the truck in reverse, with all four wheels engaged, they attempted to drag the tree from the road. The wheels spun in the dirt. They made little progress. Villagers had begun to arrive down the dirt road, from the other side. As the volunteers gave up, restoring the cable to the winch, the villagers gathered around the tree murmuring. The man with the axe resumed his chopping. Off to one side, at the edge of field, the volunteers saw an old man smiling. He walked slowly up to the villagers at the tree and began to sing. The villagers joined him in one of those African songs that rises and falls with a cadence of call and response. As the song rose, the villagers all lifted. The tree moved a few inches. As the song fell, they put the tree down. Again and again, they sang and moved, sang and moved. In less than an hour, the tree was removed from the road. The volunteers got in their Land Rover and drove on to the village, with the people following in the dust. [1]

When I first heard this story, it was about overcoming obstacles. It is certainly about that. But it is also rich with possibilities for leadership. I've included some question below for you to think about and debate with your teams. Who are we in this story? That's a question worth spending time with. I leave you with a stanza from Robert Frost's famous poem to stimulate your right-brain thinking:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey's end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are.

Discussion Questions

1) Who are we in this story and why?
a) Are we the man with the axe?
b) The Land Rover with the winch?
c) The village with the song?
d) The old man with the vision?

2) Who do we want to become?

[1] This story was told by David Young, chief strategist at World Vision and a former BCG senior partner, at a workshop at Capgemini facilities in Herndon, VA in March 2008.
[2] Robert Frost, “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road,”

1 comment:

David Isaak said...

Ed, reading your blog entries suggested that I move beyond my present paradigms. I am going to explore speaking of my work for Save the Children in our local school district encouraging youth to consider alternatives that they may not have considered. Thanks again....