It was one of the more famous speeches in the history of aeronautics, and that makes it easy to overlook one part of it that wasn’t specifically about world-changing innovations in aviation.
The year was 1908. The brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had split up to demonstrate their flying machine to the world with a series of public displays. While Orville stayed home in preparation for flights in the United States, Wilbur went to Europe and soon began flying before huge audiences in Le Mans, France.
The brothers had proven in 1903 that “sustained powered flights” were possible, and they had made many test flights after that. But the audiences in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and just outside of Dayton, Ohio were small — mostly friends and family — and much of the world remained skeptical of their claims.
Wilbur’s flights in Le Mans didn’t silence the critics, it converted them into believers. He not only flew, but he flew higher, longer and with more control than anyone believed possible. And he did it day after day after day.
On November 5, 1908, he and his absentee brother were awarded the Great Medal from the Aero-Club de France. One part of the short speech Wilbur delivered that night in Paris is often quoted, and it is well-known for good reason. Another part, however, is less frequently cited but no less profound in what it teaches us about leadership.
Vision and perseverance
The better-known part involved Wilbur’s words on bringing the historic vision to life.
Their accomplishments, he said, were a “tribute to an idea which has excited the passionate interest of mankind for thousands of years. I sometimes think that this indescribable desire to fly through space after the manner of birds is an inherited longing, transmitted to us by ancestors who in their toilsome journey through the trackless wildernesses of primeval times looked up and saw the birds shooting at almost lightning speed whenever they willed in the unobstructed pathways of the heavens.”
In other words, the passion he and Orville had for flight was something they shared with the world, past and present. They were encouraged and motivated by the communal nature of the dream.
But he then confessed that at one point he had just about given up hope of making that dream come true during his lifetime. In fact, he told Orville in 1901 that he believed it would take another 50 years for mankind to master flight. Thankfully, the gift of prophecy isn’t a requirement for an inventor. As he added, “It is not really necessary to look too far into the future; we see enough already to be certain that it will be magnificent. Only let us hurry and open the roads.”
The Wrights saw what was possible when they looked at the birds in the sky. Like others, they went to work. And, like others, they faced disappointments and discouragements. But they didn’t allow their setbacks to keep them down for long. They continued to look to the future, not with a dreamy-eyed longing, but with an intense focus on the present. They never got too far ahead of their feet. They solved one problem, then the next, then the next, until they created the open roads to flight.
Before Wilbur waxed poetic about birds and flying, he addressed his relationship with the people of France. He easily could have taken the moment to blast their critics, of which there were many all over the world but particularly in France. Unlike many of their peers who were attempting to fly, most of the Wrights’ work had been done in private. In short, many of the so-called experts thought the Wrights were full of hot air.
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Furthermore, the Wrights were considered a bit aloof and perhaps eccentric, mainly because they didn’t grant many interviews with the press. They were intense and focused on their work, but, as it turned out, the brothers were more approachable and likeable than many people realized.
Wilbur’s time in France allowed him opportunities to get to know the people there and for them to know him.
“If I had been born in your beautiful country and had grown up among you, I could not have expected a warmer welcome than has been given me,” he said in this less-often quoted part of his speech. “When we did not know each other, we had no confidence in each other; today, when we are acquainted, it is otherwise; we believe each other, and we are friends. I thank you for this. In the enthusiasm being shown around me, I see not merely an outburst intended to glorify a person, but a tribute to an idea that has always impassioned mankind.”
What strikes me most about those words is Wilbur’s understanding of how trust is built in a relationship. It takes an open mind and an open heart, and then it takes positive interactions. Despite the public critics, the people of Le Mans welcomed Wilbur. And he didn’t allow the views of the skeptics to create walls that blocked off the masses. They got “acquainted” – they spent time together and got to know each other – and with that came trust and friendships.
Fly like a parrot?
A few months prior to his 1908 speech in Paris, Wilbur was honored at a dinner by the Aero Club de la Sarthe. He had not prepared any remarks for that event, but, of course, he was asked to say a few words. A few words were all he said, but those words, too, are worth remembering.
“I know of only one bird, the parrot, that talks,” he said, “and he can’t fly very high.”
Then he sat back down.
Wilbur and Orville both would repurpose that line often when explaining why they were reluctant to speak in public. I don’t see it as a general condemnation on giving speeches, but it is a good reminder that as leaders we can become enthralled by our words at the expense of our work. There is a time to talk, as Wilbur did in Paris, but it is the challenge of leadership to know when to be like the parrot and when to do the hard work of taking flight.