“Whether we rise to the challenge of adversity or are devastated by it is largely a matter of choice. Ultimately, we are responsible for that choice.”— Carl Hiebert, author, pilot, photographer, and professional speaker
Carl Hiebert tells uplifting stories with his lips (as a professional speaker), but the story he tells with his life is even more inspiring. Carl first made a name for himself (and aviation history) in Canada when he overcame huge odds to organize (that took years) and fly a successful 58-day flight from the Atlantic Ocean in Halifax to the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver — in an open cockpit ultralight. Everyone in our family have since been up with Carl in his two-seater (“flying lawn chairs”) aircraft powered by a small 47-horsepower engine. If there’s a strong head wind, the plane actually flies backwards. During the summers of 1993 and 1994, Carl flew from the west coast to the east coast of Canada and took pictures along the way. He then edited those 14,000 images down to 141 beautiful photos that was published in a glossy, four-color book entitled, A Gift of Wings: An Aerial Celebration of Canada.
The most remarkable part of Carl’s book is his life story and travel notes that form the introduction. In 1981, Carl had a hang gliding accident and broke his back. As he lay crumbled in the rubble of his broken glider he thought to himself, “I’ve broken my back. I’m going to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I don’t think I can handle this… I don’t want to live.” He paused and continued his thoughts, “No… I still have my mind. I need to see this as a challenge. The issue here is not my broken back, it’s my attitude. How I handle this is up to me.” From many people, that would just be a lot of brave talk. As I’ve gotten to know Carl over the years, I know that’s who he really is. He’s one of the most upbeat, positive, giving, and funny people I know. It’s a joy to have him to our house or just chat with him on the phone. His conversation is full of gratitude around how lucky he’s been and what great gifts he’s been given. The title of his book comes from the gift he feels flight has been to help him soar above his physical challenges. He’s constantly working on new photography projects such as a book on the Mennonite children of Waterloo County (Us Little People). He has fascinating stories to tell of numerous travels throughout Haiti taking photos for a book celebrating the rich spirit found in the people of a poor land.
Carl is one of the most inspiring examples of a leader that I’ve had the privilege of getting to know. His is an incredible story of someone who was victimized, but refused to be a victim. Although it would be the easy way out, and we’d all understand, Carl will not catch the Victimitis Virus. This excerpt from A Gift of Wings shows the kind of spirit that marks a mature leader who takes responsibility for choices; “Life is not fair. We live in a world of happenstance, randomness, viruses, and cars that go crunch in the night. Each day of my life begins in pain — chronic, frustrating, relentless pain — it is my biggest cross to bear — so the issue becomes one of choice. Do I focus on the pain and the outrageous injustice of it all, or do I focus on the opportunities that are still there despite the hurt? — my wheelchair brings with it many restrictions and limitations — including most of the sports I relished in the past. Focusing on these limitations is a guaranteed exercise in frustration. The alternative perspective is that my accident and this wheelchair have given me a richer life in many respects.”
Leaders Go Against the Odds
“It still holds true that man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities.” — Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition
Here is a small sample of leaders who refused to accept their circumstances or “fate:”
- Basketball superstar, Michael Jordan, didn’t make his high school basketball team.
- Arthur Bishop has written nine books on military history. He started when he was 68.
- Dilbert comic strip creator, Scott Adams, received numerous rejections from magazines and “talent schools” before United Artists finally printed a few of his early cartoons on a trial basis.
- Alvin Law is a Thalidomide adult who has no arms so he plays drums and piano with his feet. He speaks to kids and corporate audiences on “There’s No Such Word as Can’t” (a phrase he kept hearing from his parents as he grew up).
- Major Deanna Brasseur started out as a typist for the Canadian Armed Forces. She went on to become one of the first female fighter pilots in the world flying F18 jets.
- Peter, a convenience store clerk, was shot during a robbery. Drifting in and out of conscienceness, he could see from the faces of the medical staff in the emergency room that they had given up hope of saving his life. A nurse asked if he was allergic to anything. “Yes,” he replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for his reply. He took a deep breath and yelled, “Bullets!” Over their laughter he told them, “I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.” He lived.
- Slav Heller was an engineer and a successful general manager of a large food plant in Poland. Disgusted with the totalitarian regime at that time, he immigrated to Canada. He was 34 years old, had a family depending on him, couldn’t speak English, and had no recognized credentials. His first job was washing airplanes for $5.00 per hour. Within four years he learned English, re-established his engineering credentials, and was a production superintendent recognized as an expert in his field. At age 53 he completed his MBA and embarked on a consulting career.
- Brittany Theis is one of our daughter Jenn’s best friends. She was born with dwarfism and is much shorter than other teenagers. When kids tease her about her height she tells them, “I am small on the outside but big on the inside.”
These are a just a few of thousands of leaders who refuse to let fate or others control their destiny. Leaders who take responsibility for their choices. I am inspired by their shining examples when my own cope runneth over. Such leadership strength braces me when I want to move into Pity City, don’t feel up to the task, or want to quit. I seem to forget my blessings much more easily than I forget my problems. I need to remind myself that if we can’t be thankful for what we have, we should at least be thankful for what we haven’t got. It’s easy to make our own difficulties (and blame someone else) it’s much tougher to use our difficulties to make us. Such strong leaders remind us that failure is an event, not a person. To fail to attempt is far worse than to attempt and fail. But look at the bright side, if at first you don’t succeed — just think of how many people you’ve made happy.