Do you know the name Charles Blondin? What about Jean Francois Gravelet? The two are the same. Gravelet was born in 1824 and then changed his name to Blondin.
Blondin was a world-famous tightrope walker. Early in 1859, Blondin decided that he would be the first to walk a tightrope stretched across Niagara Falls, 1,100 feet long and 160 feet in the air. He began to promote the event around town and the buzz started. Blondin was as good a promoter and entertainer as he was a tightrope walker. The day came for the performance, Blondin didn’t disappoint, and neither did the residents of neighboring towns. There were thousands of people gathered around. Some to heckle, some to cheer, and some were there just to say they were there.
As Blondin arrived he gets the crowd worked into a frenzy, and then jumps up on the rope and has a couple of warm up exercises. To the crowd’s amazement, he doesn’t look nearly as stable on the rope as he should. Parts of the crowd begin to jeer and hurl insults and laugh at the guy that is about to fall to his death. Shouts of “This can’t be done”, “you’ll never pull this off”, blah blah blah. The rest of the crowd grew silent. Blondin continued. Blondin grab his balancing pole and started down the rope. The entire path across he seemed to stumble and trip. The entire crowd grew quiet. Not a peep. As Blondin reached the other side, he knew he had their attention when they went from dead silent to offering a thunderous applause. The path back was not as uneasy.
He arrived back to everyone cheering. He had done it, but he wasn’t done. He then proceeded to go back and forth another five times. He traversed the rope with no pole. Then he took a chair half-way and sat a spell. Then he took some juggling pins and juggled all the way across, and then took a hot plate and made himself lunch. With every trip, the crowd got louder. For the last trip he ratcheted up one more notch.
The wheel barrel was unveiled. The crowd cheered and there was no doubt in his ability to move it across. Blondin quieted the crowd, and you could hear a pin drop. He then asks for a volunteer … to ride in the wheel barrel…across Niagara Falls. The crowd had seen him in action, they believed him, but they didn’t trust him, at least not with their lives. Eventually, his manager(some accounts say his mother) jumps in and they both make the trip just as easily as the others. Ta Da!!!
This is a great story. Not exactly the start of a war or the abolishment of slavery, but entertain and may be even educational. There are so many lessons in leadership and innovation.
Significant take aways. 1. Whenever we attempt to do something that’s never been done, people are going to heckle. We can’t let that stop us.
2. The crowd will watch and wait. Some will heckle, some will cheer, and some will be there just to say they were there.
3. The greatest things happen in a community when the watchers stop watching and start participating. True believers will get in the wheel barrel.
4. In Blondin’s case, I wouldn’t dare get in the wheel barrel. There is no upside. Many communities face significant challenges. Most residents recognize the challenges, but they don’t understand how it impacts them and they have no motivation to be a part of the solution. True leaders help people understand why they need to get in the wheel barrel.
5. We have to make it worth their effort to get in the wheel barrel. Too often we fail to think big enough. People want to be a part of something larger than themselves. Think big. Tackle big problems.