Sometimes You’re the Fish

Fly fishing and leadership lessons for the amateurFishing in general, and fly fishing in particular, is an often-used metaphor for leadership. It’s an activity that demands many of the same skills as leadership—careful planning, strategy, patience, and so forth. My first experience with this angling method taught me all of those things, not to mention another trait I greatly value in leadership—humility.

It was several years ago, and I was working in California when one of my buddies won trip at a charity event. He invited me and Sue to join him and his wife for a July 4th weekend adventure in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sue and his wife would go shopping. He and I would drive about an hour away from the city and go fly fishing.

It’s hard to describe the guide as anything but a character. He was a big guy who was easily into his seventh decade of an adventurous life. He had gray hair and a thick, long mustache that flowed down to his jaw. If you’re old enough to remember the major league pitcher Goose Gossage, then you get the picture. He was friendly and he packed a tackle box full of outdoorsman’s wit.

He set us up in the river about a hundred yards a part, and he gave me my first lesson: Casting. He showed me how to work the rod so that the fly at the end of the line makes what looks like a figure-eight above my head before casting it into the water. Then he left me on my own to practice while he went to work with my friend.

I practiced the figure-eight until I felt ready to cast, and then I let the fly … well … fly. Instead of zipping into the river, however, it circled right back toward me. The line, in fact, circled me a few times and the hook ended up in my mouth.

I looked up to make sure no one had seen my blunder, and then I began trying to get the barb out of my mouth. My friend and the guide were doing their thing up river, and I was doing my thing alone in a mini panic. I spent two or three minutes and couldn’t get the hook out of my mouth until the guide returned my way and saw what had happened.

He was looking at me and, of course, he was laughing as he walked over.

“What happened, son?” he said.

“I can’t get the barb out of my mouth,” I told him sheepishly.

He laughed some more.

“Son,” he said, “now you know what it’s like to be a fish!”

Thankfully, we were on the catch-and-release program. He cut the barb out of my mouth, and we resumed the lesson.

I actually caught some fish that day, and I still go fly fishing two or three times a year. I can relax on the river and enjoy the serenity. There are always new lessons to be learned, but I’ll never forget that first lesson: Stay humble … oh yeah, and keep the barb out of your mouth!

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