The River Knows Everything

Hear Dan read this post.

One of the most powerful passages in Hermann Hesse’s classic spiritual tale, Siddhartha, goes like this:

only a
and it is my
task to take people
across and to all
of them my river
has been nothing but a
hindrance on their journey.
They have traveled for money
and business, to weddings and
on pilgrimages; the river has been
in their way and the ferryman was
there to take them quickly
across the obstacle. However,
amongst the thousands there have been
four or five, to whom the river was not an
obstacle. They heard its voice and listened
to it, and the river has become holy
to them, as it has to me. The river has
taught me to listen; you will learn from
it too. The river knows everything;
one can learn everything from it.

Never mind the real identity of the ferryman, it’s the river that this passage is about. Every so often I find myself coming back to these words, if only to honor the fact that it is the river, the “obstacle,” that is the true teacher. Indeed, how frequently we want to simply get across the river rather than listening deeply to the messages hidden in the flow.


What does this mean…to listen to the river?

It means, I think, surrendering to experience. Staying with the painful ones all the way across, the ones we most want to run from.

It means allowing and enabling insight to emerge. Staying open to the learning instead of shutting down, even in the moments we are most afraid…of what we might learn.

It means regarding passages and transitions as the most sacred parts of life. Seeing the river from the perspective of a life-time or beyond.

If the ferryman is right, few of us have the stamina to listen well. We want to get through the rough patches of our lives and careers as rapidly as possible and unscathed.

I remember my first major client, Jon, a vice-president for a big company, itself owned by an even larger one. Without a doubt, Jon was one of the finest leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. I assisted him over the course of several years as he progressed upwards, moving several times to new locations, taking over and managing new segments of the business.

He used me to help him open up communications and build rapport in his executive teams, one after the other. Since his career was moving forward rapidly, I’d get a call every year or so. At first, he would enter his new leadership role by asking a lot of questions of his key managers, often big picture stuff: What strategies were they working from? What were their most important challenges? How did they feel about the people who were working for them? If they were in his shoes, what changes would they make? He had a way of listening, paraphrasing, responding alertly but without judgments that quickly gained people’s trust and respect.

But Jon was also listening to the river, learning from these transitions. The farther he went, the less he depended on the big picture stuff, the more he began to just tell his own story, especially the places where he had succeeded in his career and the places where he felt he had failed. His modesty and self-objectivity modeled a high level of self-knowledge and let others see how he both trusted himself and came to trust others. I watched one day as a new group of executives followed up his personal disclosures with many of their own. They were a team together with Jon without noticing how instanteously the rapport had been formed, how his own openness had filled the room with strength, character, and common possibilities. It was clear that day that Jon had mastered the art of building a new team.

Year after year Jon and his changing teams delivered: better services, better quality, lower costs, higher morale. You name it, Jon led it. He measured things, but he was humane; “subjective” things like integrity were as much or more important than anything you could put a number next to. He let go people who clearly didn’t fit the organization but did so in a way that always preserved their dignity and he demonstrated concern for everyone who might worry about such decisions. He often seemed to see things in people no one else saw, and he stuck by them as they learned from their mistakes.

But there came a time when Jon faced a much bigger, deeper river than before, and this time the listening was much more difficult, even for him. Senior management in his company decided that Jon should end his career in one of those outpost assignments known widely in corporations as “Siberia.” A much smaller segment, far from the place he thought he might retire, and without much influence on the rest of the organization.

Why did this happen, given his skills? No answer would be forthcoming. It was just, as they say, “good corporate policy” to move key players every few years. But Jon only had a couple of years to retirement, maybe less. Couldn’t they let him ride it out on the huge success of his current assignment? Well, maybe it was also a result of Jon becoming a little too powerful in his own right. Maybe he had pushed back once too often with those above him. Maybe his private disdain for their insensitivity and all too frequent incompetence had leaked through too much. Whatever. He had to go, and on humiliatingly short notice. It felt like the only real reason was the power-play: “because we can.”

He called me to come “debrief” his executive team. They were hurting, he said. They just needed to talk. Maybe I could reassure them in some way. Maybe give them some hope. So I spent a day at it, hearing those managers review the trauma of the announcement about Jon’s departure and soothing themselves with the idea the group would be fine without him. I thought I was almost done, when one of them brought me up short.

“You know why you are here, don’t you?” he asked me. “If Jon told you it was for us, he’s lying. It’s for him. He’s the one who’s really hurting.” A shiver went up my spine. I’d worshipped him so much I hadn’t noticed what I had actually been asked for.

At the close of the day, I sat in his office, sharing my observations of the members of his team, how strong they were, how much they had learned from him. I listened while he told me about his strategies for supporting each one during the transition, the kind of stuff good bosses do without anyone else knowing. And I asked him, “What about you, Jon? What are your strategies for supporting yourself?” But he deflected the question.

I pressed. “Jon, you are not just a leader in this company; you own a significant number of shares. You’ve been here for twenty years. Why on earth don’t you tell these guys what you really think of this bullshit move. Why don’t you get angry about this?”

I’ll never forget Jon’s response. It was the second shiver that day. For the first time in all those years, I heard Jon’s voice break and saw the tears start in his eyes. “If I show anything,” he said, “they will know they have won.”

Sometimes, as Forrest Gump would say, there just aren’t enough stones to throw. At least, at that moment, that’s the way I felt. I realized just how much damage had been done to Jon and just how hard he had had to work to buffer others in his system. He inspired me to the core of my being and also left me with a sense of irreparable loss for senior leaders too ignorant to appreciate someone with his finesse. I don’t remember what either he or I said next. I’m sure it didn’t matter. Jon was going to Siberia without a fight.

Later, I remembered a story he had once told me about the CEO of the company. The budget had to be cut one year. The guy took out his pocket knife and laid it across one of his outstretched fingers. “Boys,” he said, “I expect you to make the cuts. You know, I can cut off my finger right here and now and I can either choose to feel the pain or choose not to feel it. It’s up to you.” My God, I thought, that was the system Jon had learned to survive in, build in, create trust in.

It’s too little to say Jon was a gift to his organization. There is no word, and I never worked another day for that company.

Some months after Jon and his wife had moved far away, I called him just to check in. And he was happy. He had found a way to do more good things at work — even in Siberia. He had built a new home. He was laughing. There didn’t seem to be an ounce of pain left in him.

In my career, Jon has been one of the “four or five” who has really heard the river and learned from it. There was meaning in his life and he was still listening, even in that last phone call. He will remain one of my most profound mentors.


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  • Chris

    “Toxin Handler” is an excellent description of Jon. Perhaps because he was working for folks that exemplified everything he did not wish to be, his own leadership vision and his own actions could be that much more definitive. I have known other toxin handlers during my career, but none as good as Jon. Thanks for writing, Chris.

  • Thanks for this great post Dan. My late father in law, Peter Frost wrote a book about the Jon’s of the world called “Toxic Emotions at Work” in which he describes the roles, practices and consequences of what he called “toxin handlers” without whom so much WOULDN”T go on in organizations. Sometimes these people kill themselves processing the toxins in their environment, but sometimes they come off both as gifts to the organization and solid in themselves. Cultivating the practices that let one handle toxins safely is an unteachable skill, and an invaluable asset.

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