What A Swan Taught Me About Leadership

On a warmer February afternoon, Pamela and I walked through our neighborhood. We walked over a creek, which is a hotbed of activity during the summer. In the winter months, there’s not much going on.

However, on this day, we saw two ducks and two swans. The two ducks and one swan were swimming along fine. They were having a great time in the water.

But then there was the second swan…

A swan on water. There is ice surrounding the swan.

He’s in the middle of an ice patch. All around him is a crunchy layer of ice. What we saw happen next surprised me.

The swan didn’t take flight. He pushed himself forward, again and again, into the ice. He was breaking through the ice so he could get to the portion of the creek that was free of ice.

His activity surprised me. I wondered why the swan didn’t fly away from the spot he was in. Come to find out; swans require a decent runway to fly. According to Swan Lifeline, particular swans require 82-98 feet to take off. That’s a long distance when you’re stuck in ice! I’m not sure what breed of swan this was, but I imagine he would have required something similar.


Pamela and I watched the swan as he struggled to get through the ice. Eventually, he did break free from his struggles. Thinking back on this event, I’ve discovered four leadership thoughts to keep in mind.

What A Swan Taught Me About Leadership

Watch where you land:

The swan probably thought the iced-over creek was safe to land in. Or, he might not have seen the ice. Either way, he landed in a sticky situation. He wasn’t able to freely move about in his new environment. 

I’ve seen leaders so eager to climb the corporate ladder that they don’t look to see where they’re going or where they’re landing. They make the decision to go to a place because it looks favorable. They discover they’ve landed in a troubled area when they get there

The person then has to fight his way through organizational bureaucracy, a bad culture, and frustrated coworkers. Make sure you’ve scoped out your next move before you take flight.

Figure out a way forward

After the swan landed, I could imagine the thoughts running through his mind…

  • I thought this was a safe place!
  • How did I wind up here?
  • How do I get through this?
  • What’s next?
  • What did I do?

These thoughts are typical when we land in a situation that isn’t favorable. We have to struggle through our thoughts before we take action. But then we have to figure out a way forward.

The swan didn’t stay in his rough spot for long. He knew he couldn’t lift off from his position. Instead, he tested the waters by lurching forward. He noticed the ice began to break, and he continued forward.

You don’t have to stay there if you’ve landed in a bad spot. You can look for ways to move forward. Figure out your next steps. You may:

  • Reach out to a former colleague to see if there’s an opportunity from your previous organization.
  • Create a business plan to start something new for yourself.
  • Talk to someone in the organization to create a way forward that helps you and the organization.

You will always have multiple options to move forward. It’s up to you to decide what your next steps are.

Break through challenges

Watching what the swan did next was the cool part. He didn’t freak out. Instead, he chose to break through his challenge. 

It was so mesmerizing that I caught most of his efforts on video.

Breaking through our challenges can be difficult. There are obstacles in our way that hold us back, reduce our forward momentum, and try to keep us where we’re at.

Don’t let the challenges keep you stuck. You can break through those challenges by facing them head-on, finding a network of like-minded people to help talk you through, or developing yourself so you have the skills to take off.

Keep swimming

Lastly, the swan didn’t stand still. He chose to keep swimming even when he faced opposition. Multiple times, he would swim forward, break ice, go back, and then do it all over again.

He kept swimming. Eventually, he came through the other side of the ice.

Want to get through your leadership challenges? Just keep swimming (I know that’s Dory’s quote from Finding Nemo, but it fits here, too). Don’t stop because things are hard, you don’t feel like you’re making headway, or people are giving you a hard time.

You have to keep swimming. This action gives you forward momentum.

Keep swimming, and you’ll get out of the bad spot you’re in.

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