People everywhere are hungry for solutions. They think they want a champion, a liberator, a Superman, or maybe someone who can sprinkle fairy dust over their problem and make it go away. History shows that when self-proclaimed saviors show up, few sustain. Leaders come, leaders go, and a few seem to get it right when the opportune moment arises. Churchill said it well: “Leadership is just moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm.”
Our job is a form of leadership, smaller and simpler in the grand scheme of things, but a way of incubating movement. We try to blaze a small trail of possibility, help with sometimes difficult discussions, stay hopeful and pragmatic, and try to move through and beyond momentary stalemates to the highest conclusions possible.
Somewhere in my file I have a chart that outlines a ladder of possibilities and aspirational outcomes for mediators. The bottom rung is simply to have a single good meeting that is productive and respectful for everyone at the table and not a waste of their time and yours. Higher up is one or more meetings that seems to improve communication and working relationships. Then comes crystallizing the substantive issues and getting out options for consideration. Further up still is the analysis and weighing of solutions and then the choosing of one that is acceptable.
But there is also a further rung on the ladder, one that I don’t talk about much but that happens once in a very great while. I’m reminded of it in a story about a great Samurai in Japan who had attained near perfection in his swordsmanship. He was known far and wide as a brilliant tactician with blades and a most ferocious and fearsome fighter in close combat. However, the Samurai was troubled.
All his life he had heard references from teachers to something called “heaven” and “hell,” but he never understood precisely what those terms meant. He yearned to know the truth of these things. The Samurai traveled around Japan engaging in skirmishes and battles and asking everyone he met about this perplexing business of heaven and hell. And everyone he spoke with told him to go and see a certain retired swordsman who lived in a sheltered mountain valley that was inexplicably green, even in winter.
The Samurai found that mountain, climbed it, and found the master happily drinking tea and arranging small flowers in a vase. After the preliminary courtesies he said, “Master, tell me what is the difference between heaven and hell.” The old man said nothing. After a while, the Samurai asked again, and then a third time. Still, the master said nothing and continued to arrange his flowers. Finally, the Samurai said, “Old man, I am the greatest and most fearsome Samurai in all of Japan. If you do not tell me the difference between heaven and hell this very moment, I am going to take out my sword and slice you in two.”
The master paid no attention to him or his question, but softly asked if the gentleman would like tea. Hearing this, the Samurai went into a rage, pulled his sword out, and lifted it high over his head in one of the many killing positions he knew. Suddenly, the master stopped his tea-pouring, looked him in the eye, and said, “That, noble Samurai is hell...”
Startled, the Samurai looked at the old man, lowered his sword, and slowly began to place it back in its scabbard. Then the master said, “…and that Sir, is heaven.”
Mediation, like other forums where leadership is called for, can be a hard business, not for the faint of heart. On the other hand, every once in a great while, something magical, unplanned, and unexpected happens. When that happens, the room is suddenly filled with more hope and light than I ever expected.