Way up north in a forest so dense that animals can still hear one another, a wise old owl watched over a forest. She was the oldest creature there. No-one could think of a time when she did not sit high in a tree where the view of all things was possible. All the creatures were glad for the owl’s presence. Although few had ever spoken to the owl they knew her to be wise and kind, and someone all the animal elders would consult from time to time when matters were serious.
She scarcely left her perch anymore. Branches often obscured her from view but stand in the right position long enough and she would be seen, usually with a hoot and a nod in the watcher’s direction.
One night of a full moon a young buck stood alone under the owl’s tree. He had been with his friends and their conversation had turned to the old lady who had lived so long. On a dare, the young buck was to challenge the owl for leadership of the forest. So now he was here, calling out to old Mrs. Owl with a less than respectful voice.
It did not take long. Beating wings displaced the small branches above the buck’s head as the owl lowered her altitude to a new roost.
“What may I do for you?” she asked.
Through a bravado the buck did not sincerely feel the young animal issued his challenge.
“I’m here to remove you as leader of the forest and take your place. Your wings are molting and your body stiff. My neck and rack are strong!”
“Your head no doubt as well,” the owl observed.
Not grasping her insult the buck went on.
“There is no need to fight. I have no wish to hurt you. You can keep your dignity. You have served us well. There is no hatred against you. It’s just that you’ve been around so long that other potential leaders died already. We young ones are determined to get our turn while we are still able. So please just stand aside.”
The owl leaned forward and looked at the buck with eyes that could still determine whether a mouse was breathing from a hundred yards.
“I’m afraid you are a little late for that,” she said softly. “No-one runs the entire forest any more, and certainly not from my tree. Sure, some of the elders visit me with their concerns and I dispense advice on occasion, but nothing more. A bit of wisdom is the only power I have these days. If you wish to take it away from me you will have to go to those who ask my advice. They choose to come here to ask just as you chose to come here to offer your challenge. Demand of them to ask you instead of me. If they choose to ask of you rather than me you will have my power.
It is a rare thing to see a buck collapse on its haunches because it is dumbfounded, but that is exactly what the young buck did. The pep talk from his friends included physical intimidation and threats, not discourse.
“I…I don’t know what to say. What do you mean there is no leader of the entire forest anymore?”
The owl considered the buck further.
“I’ll tell you what,” the wise bird offered. “If you are willing to hear my story I will give you some wisdom that will bring you more leadership opportunity than the largest and strongest of racks. That way you won’t be embarrassed in front of your friends who sent you here because you won’t go back defeated.”
The buck found his feet again, shook himself back to some level of dignity and nodded.
“Many years ago, before your great-grandfather was a fawn, and I was a younger owl, a great fire raged through these woods. I suppose a few had begun to notice I had some leadership skill, but the most significant reason I came into such recognition was because this pine somehow escaped the flames. Visibility and influence found me because I was in the best position to help at the moment of crisis.
“Because I was younger then and had more strength, I rarely spent much time perched in this tree. There was too much to do to get this eco-system back in order, and I was in the middle of it all. There were dens to recover, suckling infants to reunite with mothers, and the buzzards to keep in line. But even though some of the work was grisly (no, I didn’t say grizzly!). It was heady stuff. I was good at it, enjoyed it, and found it made me feel the most alive I’ve ever felt.
“I imagine it is this sensation you dream of as you challenge me. But you also need to know that this joy cannot be separated from the difficulty. Being looked to by others is not something you can turn off at your pleasure! The same dynamic that gives you a leadership position and all that life is the one that will not leave you alone and takes all your freedom away.
“As I said,” the owl went on, “I was in the middle of everything. The whole forest came to depend on me. Nothing happened without my say-so. And it was then I could feel it all collapsing. There was still so SO much to do—finding new places for the hibernating species, and we were still waiting for the snails to meet and identify their needs. But I was at my limit! Was I to stop my own hunting for food? Was I never to sleep? I was at least wise enough to see that we were about to come to a standstill unless I did something differently.
“That’s when I went to see the old box turtle. He had lived in the forest for many years. Even though he had never led the forest he had seen many of its leaders come and go and was very wise. We had a conversation much as we are having now and the old box turtle gave me some advice I know give to you:
‘No-one controls everything. Real leaders know this and lead accordingly. When they know this they make other leaders and lead for a lifetime.’”
The buck looked as if this insight was too complex for him to absorb.
“Don’t worry,” the owl said. “I’ve had a lifetime to figure out what the box turtle meant. There is no need for you to suffer in order to know its wisdom, so I’ll explain.”
The owl hooted while readjusting herself on the branch. Settled into position again, she asked, “Would your strong rack have stopped the fire of which I spoke?”
“No,” replied the buck.
“And would your speed or hooves keep the wolves from preying on all the deer at all times? Come now, be honest!”
The buck had to admit that while he had already evaded more than one hungry wolf in his young life he could not protect everyone.
“That’s what the old box turtle meant,” the owl said. “None of us really control everything. A good leader learns this early, then begins to focus on what they can control, which is usually the use of their own skill and their own responses. When they find this focus, and then use it in such a way as to benefit others—to help them find their focus also, then they will never lack for anything to do.”
“What I’m telling you my young friend is that you are already able to be as much of a leader as you’ll ever be. And, your leadership scope is not counted by how many your control, but through the legacy of other leaders you help to develop.”
With that the owl nodded her head and painfully flew back to the highest branches of the pine. The buck sat for a while then left to find his friends. When his buddies crowded around him to hear how he had successfully challenged the owl all he would say was, “that old owl is a wise bird. She saw what I was there for and immediately surrendered her power to me.”
His friends all thought this meant he was now king of the entire forest, but the buck smiled secretly, fully aware of what his words really meant.
- What makes you say A-men?
- What makes you say Oh my?
- What story from your own experience comes to mind?