by Mark Smutny

Last week I drove from Seattle to Spokane to visit my mom and dad, 91 and 92 years old and relearned a lesson about leadership. At their request, I took them some KFC with coleslaw, biscuits, and honey. We caught up on grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and shared precious memories of farm life, family times, and good food. After hugging them goodbye and whispering, “I love you,” I headed back to Seattle for a good meal, conversation with my sweetheart, and work the next day.

This is where the story gets dicey. Driving between Spokane and Seattle requires going through the Cascade Mountains. It’s a beautiful drive in the summer, but in winter, drivers need to prepare for heavy snow and highway closures.

All was well until ten miles from the summit of Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90, when snowflakes began falling. Big ones. The size of half-dollar coins or small butterflies. Lots and lots of them. Then came the wind. After a pleasant visit with mom and dad, I’d driven into a blizzard! “Holy crap!”

Semi-trucks jackknifed. Cars slipped and spun out.  Within five minutes, I’d passed forty disabled vehicles that hadn’t made it to the summit.

Me? I drive a pickup truck, especially in winter when traveling distances.  My 4-wheel drive Ford-150 may get terrible gas mileage, but I trust my truck and my wits in the snow. I carry a bucket of sand and two shovels. Flares and flashlights, too. Water and food. A tow chain and fire extinguisher, thick gloves, winter boots, propane heater, and sleeping bag, just in case I get stuck or can help someone else. “Be prepared” says the Boy Scout motto. I was a Boy Scout. I still remember to prepare.

My strategy was to stay far left, with my left tires, both front and back, positioned on the rumble strip. The rumble strip is where grooves are cut perpendicular to the direction of travel. They warn you to stay centered in the lane with a loud, noisy, gravelly sound if your tires hit the strip. But when they’re covered in snow, their sound is muffled, more like a pleasant hum.

My tires gripped the rumble strip. They never slipped. I traveled slowly non-stop, up the slope and made it over Snoqualmie Pass. Slowly, I descended with the same strategy.  The downslope was slick with ice, then slush, then rain. Eventually, all was clear, and I made my way home. All was well.

When the storm first hit, I noticed that my hands were gripping the steering wheel, tightly and tense. My arm muscles were tight, too, like iron or steel.  So, I relaxed. I loosened my grip. I took several deep cleansing breaths. I slowly shook out the tension in my arms and shoulders and back. It was when I relaxed that I came up with the idea of driving in the left lane letting my tires grip the rumble strip. It had worked. I was pleased.

I may be weird, but I enjoyed cutting a path through six-inch deep snow.  The steady hum of my tires planted securely on the rumble strip reassured me that all would be well, and I’d make it home. Once, I looked in my review mirror and saw a line of cars and trucks following the path I’d cut. It felt good. I‘d helped others navigate the treacherous Snoqualmie Pass.

Brain science confirms what ancient wisdom traditions have always known: that when we calm the body and brain through deep breathing and mediation, we contain fear and set our panic aside. When we’re stressed, our breath is often shallow and short.  When we breathe deeply and slowly, our bodies and brains feel safe. With fear and panic contained, we steady ourselves. We become more deliberate.  We think more clearly and are more creative, flexible, and emotionally resilient. Others sense our steadiness and trust us to lead.

Storm metaphors are frequent in great literature and scripture. From Shakespeare’s King Lear to Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, storm metaphors symbolize the inner struggle between chaos and calm, between turmoil and peace.

Whether driving through blinding blizzards in high mountain passes or leading your nonprofit through storms of any kind, be steady my friends. Breathe deeply.  Slowly. Calmly.  Still the fear, quiet the panic. As you breathe deeply, find peace.

With a steady brain, a steady heart, and a still spirit, you can lead when chaos comes.  Lead by example. Cut a new way, a new path up to the summit and out of the storm on the other side. Others will see you and follow. Then, in the fullness of time, you’ll make it home and all will be well.

All the best,

Mark Smutny

Mark Smutny is an Award-Winning Author, Nonprofit Consultant and Leadership Coach, Professional Facilitator and Founder of Civic Reinventions, hc.

His book, Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd Ed., provides powerful tools to engage all voices and perspectives for greater engagement and mission success.