• June 2010

Learning Leadership From "The Way of the Owl"

By Angela Sontheimer
Managing Director
Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg

At The Lincoln Leadership Institute, we love metaphors. In fact, our Transformational Journey from Gettysburg leadership experience uses the Civil War as a metaphor for addressing modern business challenges.

I’ve stumbled upon another great example of using metaphors to help with conflict resolution, achieving success, and facing challenges with strength of character in both our personal lives and our business worlds. It is The Way of the Owl, written by martial arts guru and conflict expert Frank Rivers.

In this quietly reflective book, Rivers suggests that many of us go through life like a fledgling owl “marked by anxiety, resistance and struggle … unaware of his surroundings and the consequences of his actions.”

Rather than continue to flounder in this awkward and unproductive mode, Rivers suggests that leaders learn to follow the example of a mature owl—one that is able to “strike a balance between passivity and aggression, perform well in conflict and create positive relationships without being victimized.”

In short, almost mini, chapters, Rivers advises you to:

  • Be Active, Not Reactive
  • Reflect
  • Master Abstraction
  • Embrace Ambiguity, Risk, and Paradox
  • Expand Your Heart

All of these concepts are modeled on the way a mature owl deals with its natural environment, prey, and predators. Infused with Eastern sentiment—no doubt informed by his martial arts practice—Rivers’ advice is plainspoken, but not too new-agey for my taste.

Picking Favorites

Although it was hard to pick just one, my favorite chapter is “Inquire,” which urges readers to “lead with inquiry.” Rivers writes:

“Every owl knows that knowledge equals options and options equal power. Questions are the basic tools for expanding intelligence and sparking creativity. Not only is the unexamined life not worth living, the unexamined fight is not worth fighting, the unexamined strategy is not worth pursuing.”

Rivers’ unique take on the metaphor and leadership allowed me to do what he suggests in this passage — to see conflict resolution and influence through a creative, wise and reflective lens.


About Angela Sontheimer

Angela is managing director of Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, where she is responsible for overseeing operations, marketing, and curriculum design. She is a graduate of Gettysburg College and holds a masters degree in leadership and liberal studies from Duquesne University.

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