Layne Gneiting teaches Leadership and Integrative Strategy at Arizona State University. His mission is helping leaders strategize like adventurers so they can build teams that fearlessly explore, fluidly innovate, and cunningly outwit the competition. As part of his Way of the Hero leadership programs, Gneiting has led 18 bicycle treks across the world (from India to New Zealand). He and his bride have 8 lively children and live in Mesa, AZ.
I learned the true meaning of endurance in Norway on an epic bicycle adventure.
That early June day we’d reached a dream—two guys from Arizona cycling up the Troll’s Road, a serpentine road that zig-zagged its way up a box canyon where mountains scraped the clouds on either side and a ribbon of turquoise water threaded its way between. It was rated one of the best roads in the world.
Slowly we crawled to the top where, after basking in our triumph, we then tackled another 40 miles with intermittent rain and endless climbs.
I’ll admit, as a cycle-touring junkie I was in absolute heaven. Narrow roads, stunning landscapes. We even hit a traffic jam of sheep, raced a herd of cows, and crossed a fjord on a ferry. You couldn’t beat it!
But unbeknownst to me, my friend was steamed.
At the end of the day I sat in a snug living room above a barn, about to drop a bomb. “Look, you couldn’t get a better day than today.”
I paused and breathed deeply. “But tomorrow’s tougher. We gotta climb 5,000 feet in 13-1/2 miles. That’s straight up. Look, our legs are jelly. If you’d like we can end the trek today and call it done. Totally up to you.”
Then I handed him a packet of letters.
“I was going to give ‘em to you tomorrow when we reached the top, but it feels more fitting now.”
“What are they?”
“Letters,” I replied. “From friends and family to celebrate your epic adventure.”
He stared quietly at the packet, his face a mask.
As he stared, I gazed out the window at the fjord and almost dreamily reflected over the last two weeks.
We’d come nearly 700 miles through Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. All on the back of a bike. Not your typical vacation because, well, it wasn’t. It was a transformative leadership course.
It meant hauling our own gear and sleeping (for the most part) out of a tent.
It also meant casting ourselves upon the mercy of the world and finding it eager—even hungry—to respond.
In Germany, strangers had fed and housed us. In Denmark strangers had helped us replace a trailer wheel and guarded our gear while we saw the city. In Sweden strangers had guided us to gorgeous detours. And in Norway strangers had pointed my friend to his long-lost relatives.
Story upon story flitted into mind, then—
“I’m doing it.”
My friend interrupted my reverie with a quiet declaration. Before I could punch the air with exultation he added, “But I’ve gotta do it differently.”
How Hard Things Transform Up
After the trek, in an emotional presentation to his company, he divulged what was really going on inside.
“Iʼd like to say, “Well I was like, ʻIʼm doing it!ʼ”
“That may be my normal way; I’ve done hard things before. I’ve done hard physical things before. And I wanted to do (the last day), mostly because I didn’t want this whole thing to end on a crappy note. But I was just worn out. “
(All that day) I chose to think of it as a fight, as a battle. And I chose to be frustrated because I expected it to be something different.
“And I started to realize that I didn’t have the energy to fight that peak tomorrow. It wasn’t in me. I’ve got to choose to approach this big mountain of 5,000 feet–from sea level to 5,000 feet—differently.
“So I said to Layne, “I’ve got to find a way to partner with that mountain. Find some help from the mountain. Not worry about where Iʼm trying to go, but just worry about where I am.
“I donʼt know how slow that means Iʼm gonna go. But are you willing to try that with me?”
I wanted to rejoice!
As we crawled to the top and made the final turn, up the road to Dalsnibba (the highest fjord overlook in Europe), my friend achieved the unthinkable. He changed his mindset.
He harmonized with it all: the drizzle, the climbs, the cold, even the gouged knee when he crunched through ice. And it fed him energy. You might even say “spirit.”
At the top he threw his bike to the side, fell on my shoulders, and wept. When he pulled away, tears glistening in his blue eyes, I saw purity and emptiness I’ve never seen before nor since. Purity of intent. Emptiness of ego. Just pure, unabashed self.
Years later, at a restaurant, he confessed, “If it wasn’t for that day, we wouldn’t be here. That day changed me.”
If we analyze the story we can pick up some valuable insights for serving and leading in ANY sphere, but particularly within the Church as we march into 2021.
FIRST: Language Creates Thoughts and Acts
The Gospel of John begins with the marvelous words, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3).
Now we know the Word is the Savior Jesus Christ. But let’s approach it from another stance. The Word also references the power of speech. The Word literally means THE WORD! Words, language, communication. Words are remarkably generative in that, like “all things were made by him” (Jesus Christ, the Word) so are all things made by the word (language).
For instance, two people can love each other, but they’re not married until a speech act declares them married. It is the act of words—the pronouncement—that shifts them from one state (single) into another (married).
The United States wasn’t a free country until they boldly made a Declaration of Independence (a speech act).
And many of the technological advances we enjoy so richly didn’t materialize until someone spoke them into being! (We’ll put a man on the moon. We’ll put 1,000 songs in your pocket.)
Since words have the remarkable capacity of shaping thought and actions, we should analyze, as my friend did, the words used to describe events. The U.S. author Ursula Le Guin put it this way:
“We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict [and] the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, righting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start “fighting” against them. That’s one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.”
As World Wars and other conflicts erupted across the planet, the language of battles and enemies inevitably filtered into daily conversation. Even into songs. Some of our favorites include the stirring Battle Hymn of the Republic, Onward Christian Soldiers, and We Are All Enlisted. Ideas of “marching to battle” and “enlist(ing) in a royal army” caught on, preparing us to wage war not only against our enemies, but against the Adversary and his minions.
Yet these same songs, and their warrior metaphors, can harden us against humanity and block our thinking.
A simple bicycle ride in Norway emphasized this principle. My friend discovered he could trade “battle metaphors” about mountains (something to vanquish, conquer) for peaceful ones (something to partner with, find help from). This shift in language shifted his results.
SECOND: We Can Swap Language of Obligation for Language of Choice
My friend later said having choice (in Norway) allowed him to choose the shift. Oh certainly I could have railroaded him, insisting on climbing that final day. After all, it was part of the program. But receiving the option empowered my friend to change the way he thought.
Imagine the impact this empowering “option” would have on one of your fellow leaders, or someone you’re counseling with as they are trying to discover how they can best serve, repent, grow and discover their best self.
Years ago we were invited to give a workshop on the power of language for a wonderful Relief Society retreat in the mountains. As we spoke, some rather fascinating insights emerged.
First, most of the women confessed to being overtaxed with the language of obligation. In their words, they constantly walked around saying (and thinking) “I have to wash clothes.” “I should visit my ministering sister.” “I ought to clean up this mess.” Notice the words they used: have to, should, ought to. Inherent in these words is a sense of not only obligation, but guilt, like a Christmas package wrapped in mud.
To make it more interactive we walked around speaking these words aloud. (Try this at home—it’s illuminating!) “I have to…” “I should…” ‘I need to…” Everywhere women’s shoulders slumped and feet dragged. A heaviness filled the room.
“All right,” we said. “Now let’s shift the language to language of choice. If you’re open to it, let’s try saying things like ‘I choose to (fix supper).’ ‘I want to (write that report). ‘I’d like to (run my son to soccer).’”
You could feel the shift immediately! A lively energy coursed into the room, and instead of drudgery and dreariness came a spirit of fun and laughter.
It may seem like mere semantics, but there’s a tangible energy that accompanies the language of choice.
Out With Coercion and In With Empowering Choices
We can certainly fuse this insight into our daily practices, but what about our church callings? After all, those of us in leadership are aching for our peeps to reach higher, stretch further…basically DO MORE! (Sometimes just do what we think are the basics!)
It’s awfully tempting to employ the language of coercion. A devious little part of us would LOVE to fling out something like, “The prophet said to…so you should…” “If you don’t (do the dishes) you are (a slothful child).” Or any number of other wicked little sayings that, while often well intentioned, snap the listener into a straitjacket of obligation or guilt.
But we can resist! We can sprinkle language that empowers them with choice, WITHOUT the clanking shackles of obligation. For instance, instead of saying, “Son, you have to clean up your room!” we could say, “Son, would you we willing to clean up your room today? You seem to be happier when it’s organized.” And in our callings we can say, “Brother Gneiting, if you’re open to it we need someone to care for Brother Owensby. Would you consider that?”
Ahhh, choice! It’s a beautiful, precious gift! And when we employ the language of choice, we demonstrate a respect for that gift in others.
THIRD: We Can Choose Inspiring Language
The famous author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (author of The Little Prince) wrote:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
If we dissect his words we can see the Gospel laced all the way through it. What compelled Lehi to leave home, wealth, friends, and the comforts of daily living? A fiery vision. Nephi didn’t just catch the fire of that vision, but picked up the torch and carried it forward. In modern days, Joseph Smith envisioned a temple, and the saints in Nauvoo created it. Brigham Young envisioned a place where the saints could thrive, and they traveled to it. He also envisioned a mighty temple to our God, and in Salt Lake City they built it.
Although they just sacked him, the college football coach Gus Malzahn joined Auburn University after their worst season in half a century. Entering a locker room of dejected, demoralized athletes Malzahn declared, “We’re going to have the greatest turnaround in college football.” That year they played—and barely lost—the college football championship. Lit with the fire of vision, they transformed a crushing year of defeat into a glowing season of triumph.
The key is to use language—and conviction—that paints a compelling future BEYOND the present circumstances. Like the teacher who doesn’t just teach a class, but creates the next generation of leaders. Or the bishop who doesn’t just get kids on missions, but invites them to embark on personal journeys of transformation for their posterity.
Here are 2 quick strategies to help.
- Employ generative language—language rooted in the future. (A study of Enoch is especially useful here. According to Abraham 7:13, Enoch “spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him.”)
- Paint your vision with imagery. The use of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch converts abstract concepts like a camping trip into a crackling campfire drenched in marshmallowy goodness and the glowing embers of fellowship. This of course assumes you have a vision. If not, start there.
Then instead of saying, “We’re going to have a great year” (yawn), inspire with, “This year our classes will become sites of revelation.” It’s like a magic trick. Using language to plant a gripping idea in someone’s mind inspires the very outcome it projects. Like helping them long for the endless immensity of the sea.
After all, the Word was in the beginning with God, and the Word was God, but He and his inestimable gift of language abide with us today. Let’s use them.