The Principle of Higher Ground

The Principle of Higher Ground

There is a relatively simple formula involved in influencing others – and it begins with a concept that is timeless…. and often ignored.


The problem statement –  affecting change in organizations or with individuals is not an easy process.


Most of us are quite comfortable with the status quo, thank you – and simply telling us we need to change may speak easy but it plays hard.


We are hardwired to resist it.


But transformative leaders, just like great salesmen and great negotiators – understand that the greatest obstacle sometimes is in helping others recognize that settling for the status quo can be the worst alternative.


I learned that years ago – on a hiking trip high in the Smoky Mountains. It was a hot, humid day and a group of us decided to take a break from the trail and plunge into a small river near the base of one of the peaks. The water was cool and before long our respite had turned into an afternoon of leisure – even the threat of a coming storm from the north didn’t dissuade us.


Just as the first rolling peals of thunder began to intrude a passing hiker stopped and warned us heavy rain was on the way. He went on to add that swimming in the river was actually against park rules. We smiled and thanked him – and promptly went back to our fun.


Some five minutes later two more travelers ventured by – also coming from the north.  They walked to the water’s edge with a worried look – pointed out the brewing clouds – and strongly suggested we clear out of the water. One of my friends saluted and jumped from one of the overhanging rocks back into the river. The hikers shook their heads and continued on.


It was another five minutes before a fourth hiker appeared. He paused to watch us for a while and then he said this.

“Hope you boys got your affairs settled.” He pointed to the ominous clouds that now draped the peaks above and added. “Right where you are right now is where the flood waters always come from upstream rain…lost two hikers last year just about right here…swept away by a wall of water. Rangers found their bodies about 5 miles down that way.”


He pointed to the valley below. Before he looked back all five of us were out of the water, putting on our boots, and making our way quickly to a safer spot – and higher ground.


Now you might ask what’s so significant about this little story – it’s pretty simple, each of our visitors that day offered the same suggestion.


“Get out of the water.”


Visitor #1 told us it was against the rules to be in the water and suggested we clear out


Visitors #2 and 3 pointed out the pending storm and made the same request


But Visitor #4 did something more. He helped us understand WHY it was NOT in our best interest to stay where we were – that doing nothing at all might be a real problem.


Well, this isn’t rocket science, right?  What’s the message here?


It’s this – a hundred hikers could have passed us that day. And offered the very same warning. It took only ONE to quickly change our thinking.  Only ONE. He was not more authoritative, more articulate, or more engaging.


But he helped us understand the view from his perspective and in very stark terms.


Telling people WHAT they need to do is easy.


But until people understand WHY they need to do it they’re seldom inclined to move.


We take action when it is to our benefit to do so. That benefit becomes even more compelling when we understand that doing nothing carries risk.


The most effective influencers recognize that creating dissatisfaction with the status quo engages people far more effectively than telling them WHAT they need to do.


The difference between the middle of that river and higher ground represents the productive tension that influencers understand – and are prepared to address. Churchill was a master there – the same for FDR.


Remember, NO ONE changes just because we want him or her to – they change because THEY want to.


Even a few minutes helping others understand the WHY can be powerful…but it happens only when we stake higher ground and invite them to enjoy the view!


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