In 1859, Jean Francois Blondin became the first man to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. As the crowd watched, he stopped halfway, sat down, and pulled up a bottle from the water below. After refreshing himself with a drink he stood and executed a back somersault before walking the rest of the way across.
In later stunts, Blondin walked across the falls blindfolded, in a sack, rode a bicycle, walked across with his hands and feet in cuffs, on stilts, and even carried his manager across on his back. Once, he even stopped in the middle to cook and eat an omelet. With each crossing, the crowds grew in expectation of his latest amazing stunt.
Then came the day when Blondin walked across the falls pushing a wheelbarrow. As he finished the walk, he addressed the crowd of 25,000 people. “Who here thinks I can walk across with someone sitting in the wheelbarrow?” The crowd exploded into cheers and applause. But when Blondin asked for a volunteer, the crowd fell silent. Finally, after a few tension-filled moments, one man quietly stepped out of the crowd and climbed into the wheelbarrow.
This is a story about three types of people. The first is the tightrope walker – the innovator. Many dream of playing this role – the one with the big idea who achieves fame by turning conventional thinking upside down. The notion of being the next Steve Jobs is attractive and the world definitely needs those people. We need individuals who raise the bar and blaze new trails. But people with the skill, daring, and resources to fill this role are few and far between.
The second role in this story is the crowd. Most people are content to be part of the crowd. They cheer on the innovator, watching in awe as he introduces radical new concepts. They buy tickets and watch the show from the sidelines.
What the world needs is more volunteers – people who make the decision to step out of the crowd and become part of the larger story. It’s a scary move. Think about the volunteer who stepped into Blondin’s wheelbarrow. What if things had gone wrong? Now, admittedly most risks we take aren’t life threatening. Typically the things that hold us back are embarrassment, fear of failure, apathy and even resentment.
But without the volunteer in the wheelbarrow, there’d be no story. Successful innovation requires people willing to play a supportive role. It requires members of the team who can participate without necessarily taking on the lead role. When people are willing to lead by following they allow great things to happen. Besides, the best view of Niagara Falls that day was from the wheelbarrow.