Silly Putty and Super Glue

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Each year Fast Company magazine puts out a “100 Most Creative People in Business” issue. I love reading through the descriptions of these individuals’ innovations and approaches to their creative endeavors because they stretch my thinking, and cause me to consider the challenges before me in new and different ways. The experience always brings to mind a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

So what has your mind been looking like of late? Are the dimensions of your perspective the same today as they were three months, six months, or even a year ago? If you had to describe the parameters of your thinking, which term is a more accurate representation — silly putty or super glue? (Hang with me here . . .)

Does your thinking stretch beyond the egg-like shell that originally contained it? Do you have the ability to expand your understanding, your horizons, your sense of possibility to lengths far beyond what one might imagine when first viewing the malleable little ball that is your mind? Do you pick up ideas, impressions, from others and adapt them to create a new picture, and bounce back when you run into walls? Silly Putty.

On the other hand, do you stick with things, unwavering in your commitment? Can you be counted on to hold tight to that which you have been called to do? Regardless of the stress or pressure being placed upon you, are you the one that people rely on to remain strong, to stand tall, and to serve as a yardstick against which to measure their own actions? Super Glue.

Which is better? Wrong question. The answer is an “and” not an “or.” As leaders, I believe we are charged with demonstrating Super Glue tenacity when it comes to our values, our mission, our passion, and Silly Putty adaptability in finding new ways to reach those goals.

Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People are a perfect example of that. These are people who have held fast to an idea in the midst of some pretty significant obstacles/push-back/box-like thinking. And yet, regardless of the pressures they faced they did not waiver from the passion that fueled them. Super Glue. In virtually every case however, they also had to expand their thinking in new and different directions. They had to stretch to find new ways over, under or around some impediment that had deterred others from considering that path to success. Silly Putty.

The best leaders have to be willing to stretch if they want to stick tight to what drives them. Don’t believe me? Pick the best, most accomplished leader you know . . . look closely . . . I’d be willing to bet you’ll find a healthy balance of both silly putty and super glue.

Creative Focus

This week, I dove into in Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” issue. I always find this annual round-up motivating because the snippets on each honoree’s accomplishments open one’s mind to possibilities, and to looking at seemingly intractable challenges in new ways. Seriously, if a researcher can find what appears to be a cure for ebola by infecting tobacco plants with the virus, or another company can find a way to eliminate nuclear waste with “molten salt”, surely I can take another look at some of the persistent challenges that face my own industry and organization.

I happened to be reading these stories right after meeting with a number of colleagues about impending changes in how we do business, and so was especially struck by how hard it can be to look past how we have always done things to see the possibilities of the future. When entire organizations are built around doing things a certain way, having someone suggest going in a totally different direction can be a bit jolting ( . . . unless of course you are the one proposing the new path!) And yet, if “the way we have always done things” is not resulting in significant progress toward solving the problem at hand, don’t we want someone to find a better way?!?

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the answer to that question is yes. So if the goal is to find a better solution, how do these “most creative people” do it? Creative focus. That’s my takeaway from reviewing this year’s list, and those from the past 10 years. And while it might seem natural to start with the creative part, I’m guessing the people on Fast Company’s list start by finding their focus.

How focused are you on the real challenge before you? So often we direct our attention to the wrong thing . . . we work diligently to build the best product or program, and that becomes the goal, rather finding new ways to look at the problem. Sometimes, we have to stop trying to build a better buggy and instead consider that maybe there is a better way to get from point A to point B. One of your key jobs as a leader is to define the focus for your organization — and that’s actually much harder than you might think. Are you a residential program or a child and family-serving organization? The options before you will be quite different depending how you see yourself.

Then, once you have your focus, you need to support your staff in exploring creative solutions. Do you give them permission to pursue the “what ifs” and consider solutions from an entirely different perspective? Again, sounds good in theory, but not so easy in practice. What if they come up with a solution that makes your current approach obsolete? Are you really prepared to go back to the drawing board after you have made significant investments in doing things one particular way? If you feel a bit shaky on the answer to that one, please refer back to step one.

Creative focus is not for the faint of heart . . . and neither is leadership. But, as the editor’s at Fast Company can tell you, for those who have the courage and determination to take that leap, the list of possibilities is endless.

Motherhood and Leadership


In honor of Mother’s Day later this week, I feel compelled to let you all in on a little secret. Motherhood is great training for becoming a nimble leader. The resourcefulness, patience, and big picture perspective it takes to raise (relatively) well-adjusted children is really not all that different from leading a diverse staff toward achieving identified strategic goals. Let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about . . .

  • “It’s a good thing you’re such a tough kid.” My boys heard this fairly often when they were little and would take a tumble. They would agree, sometimes while wiping away their tears, and before you knew it they were picking themselves up, dusting off their backside, and getting on about their business. The self-confidence my kids gained by knowing I believed they could handle a few scrapes is the same confidence your staff needs to step out and try something new . . . they might occasionally trip and fall, but sometimes your best move is not to jump in and rescue them, but to let them know you believe in them and know they will figure things out.
  • Fair does not mean equal. The chorus of “he got a bigger piece” does not necessarily stop when a person reaches adulthood. (I know, I really hoped that one would go by the wayside, too). Unfortunately, every organization has those who hold firm to the concept that fair means equal, and it is nearly impossible to help them see the fallacy of this concept. Most frequently these are individuals who put a great deal of stock in rules and following procedures. You absolutely need these people in your organization, but recognize that making accommodations to allow someone to come in at 8:30 when work “starts” at 8:00 will drive them crazy. Sometimes in leadership (and motherhood) the goal is simply acceptance. You might get understanding in hindsight, but don’t count on it at the time. Make flexibility a rule . . . the detail people still won’t like it, but they will likely accept it.
  • Sometimes the “octopus philosophy” is the best approach. Occasionally even the most agreeable children (staff) will dig their heels in and resist doing something you really need them to do. Did you know that a hot dog shaped like an octopus (cut the hot dog halfway up into 8 strips, spread them out like legs and the top half sits up like the body of an octopus. A couple ketchup eyes and you are good to go!) tastes much better than a plain old hotdog? Now I could get into a power struggle about the need to eat lunch, or I could just find a way to make the task more appealing and watch them gobble it up. You get the picture, right? I have much happier staff, and get to my end goal more quickly, if I can find a way to make a task appealing to them rather than try to force-feed them something they are resisting.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Find the most creative, efficient mom you know and watch how she handles one or more tired/bored/cranky/wired kids. Take notes. And at the top of the page, you can call it Leadership 101.

Photo Credit: Everyday Mom’s Meals via