Footprints

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One night, a man dreamed he was walking along the beach with God. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For many scenes, he saw two sets of footprints – one belonging to him and the other to God.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life, there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of his life.

This really bothered him and he questioned God.

“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But, I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.”

Then, God replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you! During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I am sure that the vast majority of you are familiar with this iconic poem. The powerful visual has sustained me for most of my adult life. In fact, I am so moved by it that my wife, Mary, and I use “Footprints in the Snow” as the cover of our Christmas card every year.

It is comforting to know that we have help and that we are not all alone, just “us against the world.” This is also very important in leadership and in business. I am not saying good leaders are God (even though many of us think so). I am saying that good leaders sometimes have to carry their people. It is no different than the dad running behind the bike, one hand on the seat, as his child peddles away for the first time. The child thinks they are peddling on their own. That gives them the confidence to keep going. In business, how important is it for leaders to create the sense of self confidence in their people; to let them believe they can peddle on their own? Once they learn that you’ve “got them,” they will be more confident to take risks and more likely to exceed expectations.

Interestingly, I believe that the important part of the poem is not that God carries all of us when we need Him; it is that we do not realize it until after the fact when we’ve reviewed the scenes of our lives. This is also the secret to great leadership – that your colleagues do not realize they are being carried until after the fact. Good leaders carry their people when they need it and without them knowing. Great leaders create an organization full of people who are constantly carrying each other.

Recently, a dear friend, knowing my affinity for “Footprints in the Snow,” sent me a funny cartoon with a unique spin on the poem. In the cartoon, God says to the man , “Do you see the single set of footprints? That is where I carried you. Do you see the two long parallel grooves? That is where I dragged you kicking and screaming.”

Every now and then, leaders need to realize when running behind the bike holding the seat is not enough. In those cases, you put your head down, grab ‘em by the (proverbial) collar, and drag them to the right decision.

So, how do you become a great leader? Let me tell you a story…

One day, an attractive, incredibly fit, and successful (and modest) middle-aged man dreamed he was walking down a beach.

Before him passed scenes of all his personal and business achievements. He saw many scenes of tremendous professional and personal success. He also saw scenes of less great achievements, mediocre results, and personal failures. 

He was pleased by the scenes of great achievement and troubled by the scenes of personal failure. He remembered each day and its corresponding success or failure as if it were yesterday. He also noticed a pattern. All the days he failed personally or professionally, he was alone on the beach. 

And, on all the days of his greatest personal and business successes, he saw a familiar face. One day, it was his Dad; on another, it was his Mom; on more days than he could count, it was Mary. He saw friends, mentors, teachers and priests. He saw bosses and colleagues. He saw Matthew, Keaton, Laura, and Penelope; he saw David and Nat; he saw his family; he saw his brothers and sisters.

 Then, he saw God (who bears a strong resemblance to Pat Ryan and sounds like the guy from NFL Films) and the man asked, “I see all of these scenes of great joy and success shared with all of the people who are important to me. I also see scenes of disappointment and failure where I was all alone. Why didn’t you help me then?”

 God replied, “My son, you have accomplished so much and achieved great things and I sent all of these people to help you. The days that you were alone were the days that you did not ask for help.”

Great leaders learn that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of faith and maturity.

Michael C. Marcon is the founder of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.

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