Hail the all-powerful Rock!

Published by Bill Toliver on

When I was a kid I had the fortune to grow up in the deserts of the Middle East. A place that was brilliantly interesting, but not particularly hospitable to life — especially the life of a pasty white kid.

While living there I became a bit of a student of Bedouin culture, as I was fascinated to see how a community of people can thrive in such a challenging place.

One of the first things a Bedouin will teach you about surviving in the desert is that you must never travel without having some sort of landmark to guide your journey. Each of us has a dominant leg, and without some sort of “rock on the horizon” it is almost certain that someone trying to traverse the desert sands will, instead, walk in a huge circle. Each small step seeming perfectly “right” as it is taken, but over time, when added up, ultimately leading one unconsciously astray.

With that rock in your sights, though, the exact opposite will happen  —you will make countless subconscious adjustments in which each step brings you ever closer to the goal.

Recently it has struck me how useful this premise can be to life in general.

The Rock can help make sense of life

In particular, it has always felt like an especially good metaphor for the challenges faced by the leaders of civil society and social impact organizations. Leading a nonprofit these days is all about finding a way to overcome the many subconscious forces that subtly and unintentionally — but nevertheless inevitably — can to lead us astray.

The constant pressure of securing resources from donors who we have trained to behave more like shoppers, rather than people willing to commit to a cause. The ever-present need to manage the ratios between program costs and overhead. The perpetual ringing in our ears that we must “… behave more like a business.” And let’s not forget the vitally important major donor or board member who loves to give you unsolicited advice about what he or she would like to see in your next case for support or print ad.

Continually addressing each of these tactical pressures is, of course, necessary for success. But do we just have to accept that each of these countless distractions will inevitably pull us slightly but inevitably away from our raison d’ etre? Must we find ourselves veering off yet again in a continuous circle? Or is it possible that even these seeming “necessary evils” can help drive us even more surely toward our mission?

The answer is it depends.

The Rock can be your spiritual guide

It depends on whether or not you, the people with whom you serve, and the people who support you in that service can all clearly see that rock on the horizon. Whether or not it was a deep and abiding commitment to that rock that brought you all together in the first place. Whether or not your distance from the rock is the strongest measure of everything you do.

There is no question that you will have to traverse mountain ranges, and navigate your way through valleys and broad expanses of barren land on your journey. There will be times when there are no apparent sources of nourishment. Yet if you always keep your eye on that landmark, you will get there.

So it is worth taking a moment to do a mental inventory. To think about that rock in context to the work you do each day.

Think about the things you do that were never part of any original plan or founding principle. Things that you subtly, subconsciously (but oh so surely) walked your way into as you were responding to this week’s headlines, a shift in the economic winds, or a change in the political landscape.

Ask yourself how many of the things you do each day are “sacred” — at the very heart of your mission? Now think about how many of the things you do that are merely habitual — that have begun to take on the characteristics of something sacred, but actually distract you from the end goal?

The process of taking that mental inventory is the first step to clearing the fog and haze from around that rock. Bringing it back into focus.

Then start asking yourself how you can get everyone to see that rock again.

The Rock will give you the courage to do what is right

You will find that the process of doing so creates quite an interesting paradox. It creates something that is both refreshing and exciting, yet at the same time intuitively obvious.

More often than not, you will find that refocusing on the landmark does not require a radical change in focus or commitment. Instead, it is more a process of giving people permission to do what they instinctively know is right. To lead rather than follow. To act rather than react.

Then move from a mental inventory to a physical one. Look at everything you say and do. Reread your website and your case for giving. Ask yourself about the last op-ed or speech you delivered. Are they all setting the right context? Regardless of the story they tell, is your “rock on the horizon” the obvious moral to that story?

Look at your operations team, your partnerships and board membership. Is everyone there for the right reason? Are they all on the same journey to the same destination?

Then start moving your organization forward. Over obvious mountains and through inevitable valleys, but always toward the only destination that matters.

Jim Collins wrote a very useful compendium to his best-selling book “Good to Great”. Here’s a link to “Good to Great for the Social Sector” on Amazon. I highly recommend it as a quick and very useful read.


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Bill Toliver

Bill Toliver

Bill Toliver is the founder and executive director of The Matale Line and a member of The Resource Alliance board.


Simone Joyaux · March 10, 2017 at 14:43

Very nice blog, Bill. Very nice indeed. And I love Jim Collins’ monograph. A must-read for all NGO leaders.

Bill Van Eron · March 16, 2017 at 16:55

Hi Bill, Nice story. Did not know you grew up in the Middle East. As one who always had that “rock” to guide me when leading some of HP’s best marketing work whether as a program, cross functional collaboration, PR or channel activity, I never talked about “it”, as engineers would not care or get it. In the field they said “better to ask forgiveness that to ask for permission”. I learned it’s better to show people the path by actions that build trust while smashing through status quo limitations on all we do in life. I tell people, having grown up in NYC – a wonderland of opinion, stimulus and actions – that I did not know my own opinion till I hit 27 and then I got married (-: But I always had my rock.

Michael Piraino · March 18, 2017 at 13:11

Bill, I love these thoughts. I grew up meandering around forests and meadows, where the same thing applies; unless you take each step in the light of your ultimate goal, you’ll end up going around in circles. And now that I’ve got six different advocacy projects to pay attention to, I know it’s also important to focus on what’s most important.

Hope to connect again soon

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