Don't judge a skillful leader by his Pokemon helmet

alisondgriswold@gmail.comJuly 11, 2014 

First impressions 3 ILLUS.jpg

First impressions aren't always reliable.

SO HEE LEE WON — McClatchy-Tribune News Service

I've spent the past three weeks at summer camps. The highlights included eating "breakfast dogs" (don't ask), jumping into mud pits and (drum roll, please) going white-water rafting.

Admittedly, this was not an activity I was initially excited about. It seemed to me that teenagers who regularly put their shirts on backward would not be very capable when it came to navigating seven-foot waterfalls. However, my confidence in their safety was bolstered when I saw our rafting guide in action. At first I was unsure about our guide, Cody. Rocking a bright orange Hawaiian shirt and a helmet covered in Pokemon stickers, he seemed more fit for a skate park than the Chattahoochee River. However, he quickly proved to be an expert -- telling us exactly how to paddle and where to lean.

When one of the teens toppled out (not from a rapid, mind you; I think she was dodging a horsefly), Cody deftly leapt from the boat, grabbed her by her life jacket and plopped her back on the bench before she even realized what was happening. Any concerns I had vanished. Clearly, Cody had skills.

Another adult had a very different experience with his crew. "I thought we had scored the best guide," he shared. "He was tan and muscular with a super slick helmet covered in rafting stickers. His life jacket was fancy, with a waterproof pocket just for his iPhone." However, when they set off down the river, the guide shared, "I've never actually done this river before. But I've watched lots of videos about it on YouTube."

YouTube? The group was unsettled. A video on YouTube does not an expert make. Yet here they were, about to trust their lives to a snappy dresser with expertise garnered from the Internet.

They escaped with their lives, but it reminded us all just how quick even us adults can be to follow what looks cool. I was quick to write off Cody, with his Hawaiian shirt and cartoon-covered helmet, yet his years of experience on the water kept us safe and we had a great time.

When it comes to our teachers, leaders and mentors, are we following the folks with the coolest hair and the sharpest outfits, or are we following the folks with tried-and-true wisdom? In my own life, I've learned that some of the best leadership and advice I've been given hasn't come from the people with the bold swagger, but from those who consistently seek to be truthful and good no matter who their audience is.

I take comfort in knowing I'm not the first to judge by appearances. An often-quoted passage from the Old Testament tells the story of the prophet Samuel, sent by God to anoint the new king of Israel. Advising Samuel as he observed the men before him, God instructed him to look beyond first impressions, explaining, "Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

We don't have the omniscient skills to look directly into the heart, but we can use common sense to observe behavior. First impressions -- like the one I made based on Cody's Pokemon helmet -- aren't always accurate. It was Cody's actions -- saving the teen who fell overboard and navigating the corkscrew falls -- that proved his reliability. In the same way, we should look past a flashy book cover or polished speaking and be sure that we're being formed not by trends or fashions, but those invested in living the truth. When you feel like you've fallen overboard, it's skill -- not style -- that saves.

Follow columnist Alison Griswold at twitter.com/alisongriz. Read her blog at www.teamcatholic.blogspot.com.

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