Have you ever had a moment in life when you learned a lesson so valuable it became like a gift hidden in the attic and forgotten, only to be rediscovered years later to be enjoyed more than ever?
I would like to share just such a lesson from Corporal Bob Dwyer, USMC, a member of the storied “Carlson’s Raiders.”
Bob Dwyer was the father of one of my best friends as a child, and one of our Boy Scout leaders.
As a boy, you couldn’t spend 10 minutes with Bob without him making you laugh once and think twice about something. Out in the woods he was great, not only because he was fun, but because Bob knew stuff.
We didn’t know it at the time, but came to understand later that Bob knew stuff because during the War in the Pacific he was a Marine Raider who had survived Malaria during “The Long Patrol” on Guadalcanal, and helped blunt Banzai attacks on Bougainville.
I was 12 years old and our Scout Troop was deep in the Great North Woods on a camp-out. We were excited, because Bob was teaching us how to build lean-tos. Our troop would sleep in them instead of tents and we were pumped about it.
After our shelters were built, Bob gave us a talk about what to do if you ever get lost in the woods. As Bob talked, my attention drifted away to a woodpecker tapping out a beat on a dead tree.
My attention returned as Bob barked, “Marcou, this is important! Are you listening?”
“Yes sir,” I fibbed.
Bob continued, “When you forget everything I have just told you, and you find yourself wandering in the woods hopelessly lost, you will sooner or later come to a creek. Follow the creek. Creek knows where it’s going.”
Lost in the Wilderness
The very next morning, another Scout Leader sent me after another group of scouts that had been sent back to the trailer to get food for lunch. I ran after them, caught them at the trailer and delivered the message I was directed to give them.
“Bring back peas,” I said, and sprinted back toward camp alone — so sure of the way back was I.
After a while though, I slowed to a jog, and still later, I found myself walking. Finally I stopped. I looked around at the forest through the trees, realizing that I was as lost as lost could be.
I just started walking deeper and deeper into the woods. Being alone in the woods started out a little bit awesome. I kicked up deer and watched a hawk capture and carry off a small wriggling creature.
Along the way, I surprised a fox that, for a moment, looked at me in wonderment before he bolted off.
Occasionally I shouted, “Hellooooo!”
The only reply was my own echo.
Unknown to me at the time, I spent the day walking in big circles. I had not come across a road, a wire, a barn or even a clearing.
Ten in the morning became seven at night, and fear set in as I realized I would probably be spending the night alone in the woods.
The sun was setting as I heard the sound of water. Following the sound, I came up over a rise and saw the creek. I ran to it, knelt down and took my first drink of the day from the clear cool water.
As I drank, Bob’s words came back to me like an echo, “Creek knows where it’s going.”
With quenched thirst and a viable plan, I sprung up, made a right face and started to run. I followed that creek as it danced, twisted and turned through the woods. I was trying to outrun the darkness settling over the forest.
Just before sunset, the creek babbled its way under a little roadway bridge. I climbed up an embankment to the road. It seemed like only a few moments later that a truck pulled over and came to a stop.
The door opened, and it was Bob Dwyer and another leader, Lloyd Weigand.
I expected to be ridiculed and chastised for becoming stupidly lost.
Instead Bob smiled and said, “Hop in, Marcou. We’ve been expecting you. Are you hungry?”
“Yes sir,” I replied as I climbed in.
Lifelong Lesson in Leadership
Bob took me to a roadside restaurant, bought me a burger smothered in ketchup, mustard, pickles, and fried onions. It was the best burger I have ever eaten before or since.
As I chowed down, Bob said, “You know, Marcou, being lost in the woods is a lot like life.”
“How’s that Mr. Dwyer?” I asked, taking another bite.
“In life, you start out wandering in circles kind of lost, not knowing where you’re going. Then you find a creek. That’s someone who obviously knows where they’re going and you follow them. Before you know it, you become the creek.”
“How do you become a creek?” I wondered out loud.
“One day you know where you’re going and what you’re doing. That will become obvious to others who are lost. Without saying a word, they’re following, because to them you are the creek, and the creek knows where it’s going. Marcou, it’s good to be the creek.”
A Leader Does Not Need a Promotion
Bob effortlessly taught me a lesson in leadership that day that I have thought about often since.
He did it without a PowerPoint presentation, video clips, graphs, or studies.
He never once uttered the word “paradigm.”
It was simple. Just know what you are doing and do it well. Eventually people will notice and look to you for direction.
People will follow you not because of your rank or position — they will follow you because you will have become the creek, and the creek knows where it is going.