During the 18th century, two explorers set out with small flights of ships to find the fabled Northwest Passage that cuts through the Arctic Circle across the top of North America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was widely agreed that the first to discover this elusive passage to China and India would find fame and fortune. Captain John Smith was bold and impatient. He believed that speed was critical to winning the race against the competition led by Captain Henry Jones.
Captain Smith and his crew made record time through the ice-filled waters. They rarely consulted their charts and maps. They took only quick, sextant sightings to plot their position. They had no time or patience for such nice-to-do activities, since they were too busy sailing their ships.
Meanwhile, Captain Jones and his crew kept a brisk pace, but took regular time out to check their progress against what little information was available in these vast, uncharted waters. When they encountered natives, they befriended them and spent days learning how to communicate and then probing for their understanding of this frozen land and sea. They also studied the sea currents and charted wind directions. The captain and his officers met frequently to pool their information, debate what it all meant, and decide what direction they should take.
Had Captain Smith seen this, he would have laughed heartily. He was hundreds of miles ahead and making great time. But there was one small problem — he was heading into a deadly trap. He had ventured far down a sea-lane that looked like an open passage. Had Captain Jones known where Smith and his crew were, he could have told them that it was a dead end, the sea was about to freeze over there, and they were in the most desolate, God-forsaken place in the Arctic. Jones and his ship sailed steadily onward. As the seas froze, they wintered over in a well-protected area that had a good food supply. The next year, they found the Pacific Ocean — and their fame and fortune. The speedy Captain Smith and his crew were never heard from again. Decades later, their frozen bodies and smashed ships were discovered by other explorers mapping the region.
This fictional story illustrates a major problem we encounter again and again in our work with individuals, teams, and organizations trying to move to higher levels of performance. It’s the problem of balancing the speed and pace of daily life or operations, with periodically stepping back to make sure we’re heading in the right direction. Going nowhere in a hurry is a timeless leadership issue that’s been with us for centuries. As the pace of change quickens, it’s easier to fall into this age-old trap of confusing busyness with effectiveness.
Stepping back, taking time out, assessing our direction and effectiveness, reflecting on our progress, is as rare as a proud man asking for directions. Here are a variety of perspectives showing how central reflection is, to growing and developing:
“The most excellent and divine counsel, the best and most profitable advertisement of all others, but the least practiced, is to study and learn how to know ourselves. This is the foundation of wisdom and the highway to whatever is good.” — Pierre Charron, 16th century French philosopher,Of Wisdom
“We forge gradually our greatest instrument for understanding the world —introspection. We discover that humanity may resemble us very considerably — that the best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbors is to know ourselves.” — Walter Lippmann, Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist and author
“Self-reflection is the school of wisdom.” — Baltasar Graciбn, 17th century Spanish writer
“With self-knowledge we lay the groundwork for the inner life without which we’re slave to chance and circumstance.” — Vincent Barry, The Dog Ate My Homework: Personal Responsibility — How We Avoid it and What to do About it
“Self-reflection is the first key to becoming a leader…leaders must be self-directed and self-reflective, listening to their inner voice and taking direction from their values and vision.” — Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader
Like the woodcutter who’s too busy chopping to stop and sharpen his ax, we get caught up in a frantic pace that may be taking us to the wrong destination. In 1891, the Anglo-Irish playwright and author, Oscar Wilde, wrote, “We live in the age of the overworked, and the under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid.” Over 100 years later the tradition of industrious stupidity continues. If we’re not paying close attention, we can get caught running flat out with our head down. We can race down dead-end roads and right over a cliff. We were too busy running to watch the signs or stop and look at a map.