Against the Grain

Gerwig 2014-01-20

Wood. Wood is used for many things. Boats. Houses. Floors. Furniture. Fires in the wood-burning stove. Kitchen utensils. Shelves. You could probably name hundreds of items made from wood, maybe even thousands. Wood, and the trees they originate from, comes in many shapes and sizes. The wood coming from trees displays many properties. Some wood is hard. Some is soft. Some is light colored, like white ash. Some is dark, like mahogany.

Talking about the properties of wood, I remember a friend of mine in college who was a forestry major. He had a forestry lab where they were required to taste various chips of wood and correctly identify which type of tree it came from. I knew wood had a unique smell based on the type of tree that produced it, but I never imagined having to distinguish wood based on its taste!

There are a few places I have traveled where a piece of wood has really stood out. Sometimes crafted. Sometimes natural. A cedar hope-chest. An old barn. A hotel in Wisconsin. A furniture factory in the Philippines. More recently, I was at a favorite breakfast place frequented by our family and I looked down at the counter. Wow! The wood really stood out. The counter was long, maybe 18’ on each side of the big “U” and about 10” across the bottom of the “U.” Around 50’ in total. That’s a lot of wood.

What stood out to me was the grain. Big, clear and bold! When I was little and working with my dad making skateboards, pinewood derby cars, or shelves from wood, he always talked about the grain. As a young boy, it was hard for me to “see” the grain. But with time, I could see the grain and even appreciate its beauty.

In life, we refer to a different type of grain when we talk about going “against the grain.” This expression means going against the flow, going against popular opinion, taking a stand, swimming upstream, ignoring the masses, listening to your inner voice, following the narrow road, or taking the road less traveled. As a leader, there are times when you need to go against the grain. Why? Because it’s the ethical thing to do. Because it will help the organization. Because it will lead to a breakthrough. Because those in the majority are wrong. Because you see something no one else sees. Because it’s the right action to take. Because you made a promise. Because you’re not willing to compromise. There are endless “becauses” (or why’s) that may prompt you to go against the grain.

Leadership is “easy” when there is no grain, no current. Leadership is “easy” when you’re going with the masses, aligning with the crowd. Leaders earn their stripes when things get tough, when things get messy, when grain appears. Big grain.

Think about some of the great leaders. People who made an impact. People like Jesus, Martin Luther, Copernicus, and Abraham Lincoln. These leaders were willing to go against the grain. They made a difference. Though it wasn’t always easy, it was the right action, the right stand. Leadership isn’t always easy. Leadership isn’t a popularity contest. Sometimes it means take a stand, going against the grain.

Whether you are a leader at home, in an office, onboard a ship, on the athletic field, in a boardroom, or the factory floor, you will have opportunities that will test your character. You will have opportunities that will try your patience. And you will have opportunities that, frankly, scare you. Don’t worry, that’s normal when you go against the grain. Take deep breath, say a prayer and go for it!

What about you? What stories do you have about going against the grain? Times when you took a stance and held firm? Times when you had to swim upstream in order to make something positive happen or do the right things?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]


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