The rock, the channel, and the stream

A parable on leadership

Brendan Ward
Oct 24, 2017 · 3 min read

In a high mountain was a stream that ran past many rocks and through many channels. One of these rocks, and one of these channels each considered themselves great leaders. For indeed, both influenced the course of the stream as it flowed down the mountain.

“Bring everything to me,” said the rock “and I will decide which way it should go.” For the rock thought that influencing the stream was about choosing what could go one way, and what would go another. Indeed, it felt that it’s highest purpose was to stand directly in the way, and thus be in the best position to make those choices.

“Through me things flow,” said the channel “for I help focus them so that they can move faster and get to where they are going.” The stream thought that influencing the stream was about helping focus motion in the right direction, rather than needing to make every decision.

Back and forth the rock argued about their relative merits, each insisting that it had the more important influence over the course of the stream.

As more ice melted in the mountains, more water began to flow in the stream. However, the rock could only make so many decisions so fast, and water piled up in front of the rock. Unable to go through the rock, the water spilled over the sides, no longer subject to the decisions of the rock. Water moving downhill simply cannot wait.

The channel, on the other hand, focused the water ever faster as more water came down the stream. The water on the way to the sea will remember only that the rock stood in its way, and the channel helped get it where it was going.

Photo by Joao Branco on Unsplash

From this, we can learn some valuable insights about leadership and progress. We’ve all likely seen leaders suffer to shoulder the burden of making all the decisions, and the associated result of holding up work in progress. I myself am often a bottleneck for my team, due to code and features waiting for my review. As much as we’ve tried to distribute review and decision making, for a cohesive product we are still allowing me to hold up too much progress.

Learning to be the stream is harder. We know what it looks like to make decisions. The rock is easy to identify with. We know less what it looks like to not need to make so many decisions, and instead focus work in motion to make it get where it is going faster. If we help this go faster, will we lose control? Will we lose relevance?

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