The Trouble with Lines in the Sand

We’ve all encountered leaders who quickly and frequently draw lines in the sand. The minute an apparent conflict/issue/opportunity arises, they vigorously proclaim something along the lines of “We absolutely will/will not (fill in the blank)” . . . “Under no circumstances will we . . .” You get the picture.

The trouble with reactionary lines in the sand is that they are an emotional, rather than thoughtful response, that usually have more to do with the illusion of control than a realistic strategy. Sure, there may be a momentary rush in defiantly and idealistically staking out a position . . . a rush that can quickly be deflated when held up to the tedium of details and feasibilities. (Note: Constructing a suitably pithy response in your head is fine, as long as it stays in your head . . . but that’s a blog for another day.)

How much better is it for a leader to ask for an explanation of an alternate perspective, to gain a better understanding why someone is proposing a particular course of action, rather than make assumptions that the other person just doesn’t know what he or she is talking about? Giving someone a chance to make their case, and taking your time to draw a conclusion, doesn’t make you weak or non-committal . . . it makes you smart. You ultimately may not agree with the alternate viewpoint, or you may think it omits critical variables, but if that is the case then be grateful that you are better prepared to respond in a thorough, thoughtful manner. Or, once you understand the person’s end target, you may be able to offer an alternate solution that can meet both of your goals. Even after going through this process, you may end up exactly where you started. That’s okay. By allowing someone to be heard, and considering a variety of viewpoints, it will be easier to gain buy-in and minimize resistance for your ultimate decision.

“Drawing a line in the sand” is really a rather strange metaphor when you think about it. From a literal standpoint, can you think of a line less likely to be sustained over time? One big wave or high tide will wash away even the most fervently drawn line when it is placed on ever-shifting sand. (Although, some of the pronouncements I have heard from those quick to take a stand have faded away almost as quickly.) I prefer to draw my lines on solid ground. Does it take longer? Yep. It takes more effort, too. But it is also more likely to stand the test of time.

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