A few months ago I was in Sydney, Australia to meet with a client. I was describing my client’s leadership development process to an Australian consultant. He responded to my description by saying, “We call that ‘painting the Harbor Bridge.’ ” The Sydney Harbor Bridge is an imposing structure. It weighs more than 52,000 tons and is held together by more than 6,000,000 rivets. Standing near it you can feel its scope and strength.
Because of its size and the corrosive nature of the sea air, the job of painting the bridge is not completed quickly. In fact, it is never completed at all. As soon as the painters get to one end of the bridge, it’s time to go back to the other end and start the process all over the again. To say something is “like painting the Harbor Bridge” is to say that it is a never-ending job. Such is the case of great leaders and their personal development.
The greatest leaders among us are lifelong learners with no end to their pursuit of self-development. ‘Arrival’ is not a term they consider desirable or possible. Even as the ends of their careers approach, they continue their quest for personal growth both for their own benefit and to set an example for those they lead.
See It Like a Painter
If we want to emulate the disciplined learning of such leaders, what should we do? The first and most crucial step is seeing our own development as the professional painters of the Sydney Harbor Bridge see the bridge: as a never-ending project that consistently pays dividends. Though the work many never end, neither do the incremental payments of doing the work.
In life we can be tempted to ask the question “Are we there yet?” This question speaks directly to our desire to know where the pain of investment ends and the spoils of investment begin. If we are to reach our potential as leaders, we must understand that such a question applied to ourselves is flawed. It assumes there is an ending destination for our development. For exceptional leaders around the world—and the painters of the Sydney Harbor Bridge—joy must come in the journey because destinations and finish lines simply don’t exist.
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