If we hope to improve our communities, our boards and our members have to get off the sideline and be a part of the show. It’s your job to get them in the wheel barrel…
Without googling it, how many of you know the name Charles Blondin? What about Jean Francois Gravelet? The two are the same. Gravelet was born in 1824 and then changed his name to Blondin. Let me quickly tell his story.
Blondin was a world-famous tightrope walker. Early in 1859, Blondin decided that he would be the first to walk a tightrope stretched across Niagara Falls, 1,100 feet long and 160 feet in the air. He began to promote the event around town and the buzz started. Blondin was as good a promoter and entertainer as he was a tightrope walker. The day came for the performance, Blondin didn’t disappoint, and neither did the residents of neighboring towns. There were thousands of people gathered around. Some to heckle, some to cheer, and some were there just to say they were there.
As Blondin arrived he gets the crowd worked into a frenzy, and then jumps up on the rope and has a couple of warm up exercises. To the crowd’s amazement, he doesn’t look nearly as stable on the rope as he should. Parts of the crowd begin to jeer and hurl insults and laugh at the guy that is about to fall to his death. Shouts of “This can’t be done”, “you’ll never pull this off”, blah blah blah. The rest of the crowd grew silent. Blondin continued. Blondin grab his balancing pole and started down the rope. The entire path across he seemed to stumble and trip. The entire crowd grew quiet. Not a peep. As Blondin reached the other side, he knew he had their attention when they went from dead silent to offering a thunderous applause. The path back was not as uneasy.
He arrived back to everyone cheering. He had done it, but he wasn’t done. He then proceeded to go back and forth another five times. He traversed the rope with no pole. Then he took a chair half-way and sat a spell. Then he took some juggling pins and juggled all the way across, and then took a hot plate and made himself lunch. With every trip, the crowd got louder. For the last trip he ratcheted up one more notch.
The wheel barrel was unveiled. The crowd cheered and there was no doubt in his ability to move it across. Blondin quieted the crowd, and you could hear a pin drop. He then asks for a volunteer … to ride in the wheel barrel…across the Niagara Falls. The crowd had seen him in action, they believed him, but they didn’t trust him, at least not with their lives. Eventually, his manager jumps in and they both make the trip just as easily as the others. Ta Da!!! If Blondin were to attempt this feat today, this is where he would drop the mic and walk off the stage to a euphoric crowd!
I love this story. There are so many lessons in leadership and innovation. I lead with this story every time I talk about community development. Let me give you a couple take aways.
- Whenever we attempt to do something that’s never been done, people are going to heckle. We can’t let that stop us.
- The crowd will watch and wait. Some will heckle, some will cheer, and some will be there just to say they were there.
- The greatest things happen in a community when the watchers stop watching and start participating. With what we do, a single person or even staff cannot make material change in a community. You have to get people to get in the Wheel barrel.
- It’s our job to convince them to get in. In Blondin’s case, I wouldn’t dare get in the wheel barrel. There is no upside. I have everything to lose and nothing to gain. With what we do, there should be a huge upside for the community and they have to be invested to make it happen.
- We have to make it worth their effort to get in the wheel barrel. Too many of our organizations fail to think big. We spend way way too much time planning after hours events, networking events, Annual Meetings, Expos or even professional development events. The best organizations focus on making their place better. Material change making a real difference. People will get in the wheel barrel for that type of effort.
Think BIG and be BOLD! That’s all I got.