Leadership & Originality: What Do You Have In Common With Scared Buffalo?

There is a road, no simple highway/ between the dawn and the dark of night/ and if you go, no one may follow/ That path is for your steps alone…

You who choose to lead must follow/ but if you fall you fall alone/ If you should stand then who’s to guide you?/ If I knew the way I would take you home.

-“Ripple”,  Grateful Dead

If the lead buffalo accidentally runs off a cliff, he has certain advantages. The other buffalo will not chuckle to themselves about his bad choices after he is gone. There will be no embarrassing eulogy or poorly attended funeral. That’s because most of the other buffalo will jump off the cliff after him.

Being a follower isn’t safer. The buffalo who follow a leader’s mistake still jump off the cliff, but they never have the freedom of running in front of the herd.

The buffalo who stays behind, frozen in place for fear of cliffs, will almost certainly be eaten by mountain lions, Native Americans, or consumed by the prairie fire.

So why follow when it doesn’t offer any more safety?

Because leadership is a heavy burden to bear.

Originality means leading yourself.

Choosing to lead an original life means that there is no one for you to follow. You must cut your own path.

Even destiny, if there is such a thing, works in broad strokes. There may be a goal, but each step, each choice, each moment between here and the goal is up to you to decide.

We are bombarded with glittery life paths, chosen for us from a catalog. The Artist, the Lawyer, the Bum. It is comforting to choose to live as a known quantity, something your relatives can easily explain to each other over the phone. But it is not satisfying.

A life chosen from a premade, store-bought package can never fit your tastes unless you add your own ingredients. You must make up what works for you. You’ll have to try it, and it will taste awful a few times before you start to get it right.

You will have to deal with uncertainty.

When you cut your own path, there is never a guarantee that you have it right. You might fall off the cliff at any moment.

You will have to trust yourself and carry a lot of faith in your back pocket.

You will have to go it alone a lot.

No one will be able to tell you if you have it right. No one will be able to tell you which way to go. No one will have the answers.

They will have lots of things to say, though. They will bombard you with answers all the time. But it won’t help.

Others can’t lead you because they only know the answer for themselves.  

Still, you are not completely alone.

There are signs on your road.

Don’t look for stop signs, or signs declaring “Highway to Happiness, Turn Left Here.” Society has spoiled us by teaching us to look for the wrong kind of directions in life.

The signs you need are like deer tracks, flying geese, and blowing clouds.  Learn to understand your world and yourself so that you can recognize the traces leading to inspiration and the warnings of an oncoming storm.

Taoists have a saying, that the wise man can only point to what he knows; words will never do.

Look for the pointers. They may come in the words, but they are describing something deeper, beyond the words. It is the deep truth that you need.

It’s not that you should reject the advice of others. You should interpret it. Listen carefully for the wisdom between the lines that will work for you.

Buffalo Leadership

A buffalo confidently leads his herd thundering across the plains, but not because someone told him the “right” direction. He didn’t look it up on Google Maps ahead of time.

He knows by instinct. He trusts what he knows, to read the ground, the scent of the air, the signs.

He doesn’t freeze for fear of choosing the wrong direction. He doesn’t lower his head like cattle, allowing someone else to take his burden.

He runs.

Sometimes he is wrong. But mostly he is right.

Most importantly, he is no better off if he lets someone else be wrong for him. He will still fall off the cliff.

So run.

Accept the uncertainty, accept the responsibility, and watch for the signs that point you home.

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