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.

Taking the Long View

As of this week, my husband and I officially survived the teenage years when our youngest son turned 20. Making it through the teens (twice!) requires that a parent take the long view. The journey is sure to be scattered with a number of “are you kidding me?!?” days and weeks. For that reason, it is never wise to judge parenting skills by looking at a single day in time . . . parenting is all about the long view.

Hmmm . . . not really all that different from leading. Any time a leader tries to implement a major change initiative or new strategic effort, the process is likely to look a lot like an amplified version of the teenage years. For example . . .

Boundaries will be tested. I’m assuming I don’t need to explain all the ways a teen will do this, and it’s really not all that different with staff . . . You make decisions from where you are standing, which might be quite different from your staff/teen’s perspective. Yes, you may have at one time been exactly where they are, but your staff/teen is not likely to acknowledge that when you are setting a boundary that feels ridiculous to them. Some will follow out of respect; some will defiantly dance right up to the edge of, and occasionally over, the line; and others will smile sweetly while they quietly act like the line ever existed.

Your IQ will drop . . . some times considerably. You just don’t get it. You are being short-sighted. You are not being realistic. Sentiments such as these (and a host of other less kind versions) are usually a result running into the boundaries mentioned above. It is easier to question the leader/parent’s intelligence than to consider there might be a legitimate reason for the action that is in direct contrast with what the individual wants to do/knows how to do/thinks is right.

The goal is to feel in control. For a lot of people, change — even what may seem like minor change to you — makes them anxious and out of control. That feels bad. And so they find ways to take control over something, anything . . . the color of their hair, whether they share critical information with others, reverting back to a strategy that worked in the past . . . you get the picture.

The point here is not to make leading, or parenting, sound like a constant battle. It’s not. But it also rarely goes exactly according to plan, and if you expect it to you will be in a fairly constant state of frustration. What to do?

Take a deep breath. Cut yourself, and everyone else, some slack. Realize that there will be “are you kidding me?!?” days and weeks, but you can influence how quickly they pass. Find ways to acknowledge how your staff is feeling, and help them find their footing. Be a broken record in clearly communicating the end goal, and also be willing to take a slightly different path to get there. Make enough deposits along the way to be given the benefit of the doubt, even when your idea stretches people in uncomfortable ways.

Taking the long view may be difficult in our hurry-up/right now/instant gratification world, but trust me . . . the results are worth the wait.

Tea Bags

I’ve always been a fan of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “A woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Of course, you could easily replace the word “woman” with “leader.” A key tenet of leadership 101 is that, as a leader, it is not a matter of if you will find yourself in difficult, challenging situations — hot water — but when. And as much as you might think you know how you will react in such situations, you often don’t until you are in the midst of it.

Usually “hot water” entails a higher than average number of uncontrollable variables. For those leaders who like to be in control at all times (know any of those?!?), this can be extremely challenging. Add to this the fact that your staff will be watching how you respond to give them an indication of how they should respond. Remember, calm begets calm . . . even if you have to fake it till you make it!

So how do you steep the strongest leadership out of a hot water situation?

First, realize that no matter the situation, there are things you can control. You can choose to take a deep breath, which will help move you out of the reactive, fight/flight/freeze part of your brain and into the part of your brain where you can think rationally. This is the first step toward responding in (what at least appears to be) a thoughtful, decisive manner. In most cases, there aren’t nearly as many things that you “have to” do as some external source might want you to think. You might “have to” do them to get the response the external source is seeking, but it may or may not produce the outcome you want. In fact, your calm consideration is usually the best antidote to an external frenzy.

Stonewalling, acting like everything is okay, going “underground”, or looking for a scapegoat is much the same as ripping a hole in your tea bag. All your power seeps out, and in the end you will often end up having to swallow the bitter dregs . . . and deal with the lingering aftertaste for a long time to come.

It is also good to remember that a bit of hot water every now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hot water mixed with a good tea bag can wake you up, keep you on your toes, and hone your focus on what is most important (. . . that would be your mission, your people, your long-term viability . . .)

As a tea drinker, I like my morning mug steaming, strong, and filled to the brim. Two or three of those, a deep breath for good measure, and I’m ready to face whatever comes my way.