It was the first week of my freshman year of college. This Northern Wisconsin girl had traveled over 1,000 miles to go to school in East Tennessee where I didn’t know a soul. Needless to say those first few days were nerve wracking. I desperately wanted to make friends but that’s an anxious thought for a lonely introvert.
The good news was that I quickly connected with a group of friends who were making plans to go swimming at a nearby lake that had a legendary rope swing. When I mean legendary, I mean ask any alumni of our small little Christian liberal arts school and they know exactly what you’re talking about. The bad news was getting to this rope swing meant swimming across the lake. Part of the legendary was that not just anyone could get to this swing.
Being the confident, competitive, desperate-to-make-friends person that I was, there was no way that I was letting that lake keep me from hanging out with my new found friends.
The trouble was that I wasn’t (and still am not) a great swimmer. But you can be assured there was NO WAY that I was letting anyone know about that slightly important detail. I kept telling myself that surely this lake is not that big if most people can swim across it. I’ll be fine. I can survive.
As we pulled up to the public side of the lake, you can imagine what’s coming. This wasn’t an itty bitty little lake. It was a good 150-200 yards of wide open water to cross to the gleaming rope swing in the distance!
With hoops and hollers from all the guys and a great deal of fear and trepidation from most of the girls, we began our open water expedition.
I started strong. Diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma during my middle school track years, I had remembered to take a few puffs of my trusty inhaler and I was focusing intently on controlling my breathing and staying relaxed. About a third of the way across a few of the girls gave up and turned back. Although I was feeling some fatigue and a little rush of panic as I looked ahead to all the guys nearly reaching the other shore, I pressed on. “I can do this. I can do this. I’ve got to do this.” A few minutes later I flipped over and tried the backstroke for a bit. That certainly helped. Back and forth I went, inching my way across that lake. A few times a couple of the girls and I would stop and doggie paddle for a minute, trying to catch our breath, encouraging each other and simply trying to keep moving forward bit by bit.
Eventually we made it across that lake. I collapsed in a big heap barely interested in the rope swing any longer and totally dreading the return trip.
I’ve had seasons of leadership much like this where I’ve jumped in confidently to a new endeavor – something bigger than I’ve ever been a part of before – and a short distance in found myself doing everything I can do to stay above water. Ever been in one of those seasons too?
You want to give up. You realize you are way in over your head and it seems like the best thing to do is turn back.
But what if it isn’t?
Sometimes we find ourselves in leadership situations that require us to just keep moving. Sure, we’re not seamlessly gliding along like some other leaders who have braved these water before, but you are moving forward. You are growing stronger. You are making progress even if it is taking every ounce of energy you have.
That’s the thing about growing as a leader. It’s not going to come easily. Your leadership growth will be most marked by the moments where you feel like you are barely staying above water. Where a simple doggie paddle is the only thing keeping you from sinking.
If you’re in one of those seasons of leadership right now, I want to encourage you to just keep paddling. You may not feel like you’re reaching the other side very quickly but keep going, keep breathing, change strokes… but just keep paddling!
Btw, I did eventually get on that rope swing and it was incredibly rewarding and exhilarating!