News Bulletin: we interrupt regularly scheduled bloggery to bring you this news flash…yesterday, for the first time in over twenty years, a white swan was sighted!
This Saturday dawned as many days this past week, cold. Unseasonably cold. Biting, frosty, snow-blowing cold. And on May 10! The day before, my search for the now scarce tomato and pepper plants, needed by our wildly enthusiastic young student farmers, had finally borne fruit, and I had thankfully carried the precious plants to the supposed safety of our large greenhouse. Armed with a newly imagined brand, the summer students, whom we had hired on the farm to grow food for fellow students, were already generating active interest on social media for their fledgling sustainable business. So it was with profound despair that I opened the greenhouse door on Saturday to find hundreds of frost-killed tomato and pepper plants. Their first night on our farm had proved fatal.
When in early March the esteemed Venture Capital firm, Sequoia Capital, wrote a prescient paper that COVID-19 would prove to be the black swan event of 2020, (Wikipedia says: “The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect), I’m not sure just how black a swan our financial prognosticators had in mind. The one we are in could hardly be blacker if it rolled in coal dust! The thoughtful Economist heralds a 90% economy. There are rumblings of food shortages with various processing plant closures. Markets are being opened before many curves have flattened. A few hundred dead vegetables in a meaningless Ontario greenhouse are not worth writing about – except that they represented a valiant, if somewhat ham-fisted effort, to do some good in one of the ways that I thought I knew how. Amidst the misery of disappointing failure, while muttering epithets better left unsaid about the futility of trying to do something worthwhile, I rounded the corner of the barn, shoulders hunched over the wheel, spirits low, ready to gun the old farm truck in a pique of testosterone-fueled frustration and came face-to-face with a swan; white, beautiful, graceful, just standing in my path. The day changed in a moment…for the better.
It turns out that there are only about 1000 Trumpeter swans in this region, ready at this time of year to migrate north, as winter leaves the south. Tagged by thoughtful conservationists, T04 stood and watched me, on my farm, where no swan has ever been seen in over 20 years. The deep disappointment of my amateurish farming failures evaporated in an instant, as I blurted to my new companion, “you look as lost as I feel.” The same frosty temperatures that had claimed my precious vegetables had served to confuse and delay the migration of this magnificent creature. As if to greet me in the COVID way, it spread out its two-metre wingspan and merely wandered up the path, leaving me watching in awe. For whatever reason, this was the day our visitor had chosen to show up.
Entering the house, I asked my wife Jean what a white swan might symbolize. “Hope and love,” she promptly replied, “I saw you stopped and hoped that you might get the message.” As usual, she was ahead of me. While I am quite sure there are plenty of animal behaviour principles that explain the utter reasonableness of a migratory swan landing on the edge of a farmers field in Southern Ontario in May. The simple fact is that it landed on my field in the middle of a very disheartening and frustrating day, and I had a choice of how to respond. No omens here, just another gritty opportunity to choose hope over experience and, in the middle of real disappointment, to still be thankful.
Most of us are experiencing a lot more adversity than a few dead plants. Industries are shuttered. A restaurant we poured our lives into is closed indefinitely. Tourists may never come again. Trucks lie idle. Tools are down. Aged parents have gone too soon. Businesses that were our livelihoods and that of our friends may never recover. Amid my farm fiascos, if someone had quoted Winston Churchill and encouraged me “never to waste a good crisis,” I might have suggested they take his cigar and extinguish it horribly. Few of us get up every day with malice as our aim, but in this black swan moment, there sometimes seems to be a lot of good efforts being thwarted. But somehow, somewhere, unexpected, the white swans show up.
For the discouraged leader in a healthy human company, what white swans might be showing up that need to be noticed?
- Perhaps our customers or suppliers need something we had never thought before to provide but now opens a new opportunity.
- Perhaps our long-suffering colleagues or employees have found a much simpler and cheaper way of working.
- Perhaps a thoughtful board member can open a new door, even a new collaboration.
- Perhaps a relationship that had soured has recovered.
- Perhaps a creative banker or accountant has a clever way to string out the precious cash for longer.
- Perhaps the loss of stability invites us to risk far more than we might otherwise have dared.
- Perhaps our work-from-home or no-work-at-all has enriched our home life in unexpected ways.
While some clouds may not seem to have silver linings, if our heads are up and our eyes are alert, and we are prepared to acknowledge some days just how hard this is, we might catch sight of a white swan, waiting in our path, to make our day! And when it does, hold that moment precious and be thankful, even amidst the setbacks. May I simply encourage you to look for those rare but present ‘white swans.’ Doing so with others can help. If you need company, we are always glad to help you look.
Here at The Telosity Company our motto is to “Do Good Work”. We are passionate about helping leaders build healthy human companies. For us, Purpose comes before Profit. We need a lot of the first. There will be enough of the second. If we can help, please ask. Find us at www.telositycompany.com.
Chris Houston writes from his farm in Moffat, Ontario, where the ordered natural world and the chaotic human world get close enough so the former can teach the latter.