Fools Rush In

In his book, The Mindful Leader, Michael Carroll tells the story of a capsized riverboat in a Chinese village. As all the villagers ran to the river to help, one man, an old fisherman, went off in the opposite direction. People grumbled: “Look at him, what a coward! Now we know what he’s made of.” As people rushed towards the scene of the disaster, they struggled to save those in the water, but they were too late. Those who had fallen into the river had been swept away by the strong current. The fisherman, knowing the tides and currents, carefully positioned himself downstream from the accident. And with the help of a long bamboo pole, he singlehandedly rescued dozens people one by one from the surging river.

The fisherman’s thoughtful reading of the situation allowed him to react intelligently in the face of emergency. Instead of getting swept up in the drama of the capsized boat, or the petty judgment of others, he carefully analyzed the situation before arriving at the most plausible and obvious solution. Clear sightedness is an important first step in the management of any crisis or situation; more important than the need to take swift action, or the need to be seen taking swift action.

It can be difficult in the modern workplace not to react like a villager, and always rush headlong to the scene of the next dramatic accident. We have become so overly reactive to outside stimuli – unreasonable deadlines, an avalanche of email, internal politics and demanding clients – that clear thinking seems like an unaffordable luxury. But like the fisherman, we need to look at the whole picture if cooler heads are to prevail, and good decisions are to be made in the face of crisis. What are some of the ways we can do this? Stop and Listen

Stop what you’re doing for a second and just listen. What exactly are the facts here? It’s often been said that good leaders listen at least as much as they talk. And people like to be around someone who listens well. Whether they have an actual say or not, people still need to feel like they are being heard. So be quiet and remain open to what your team has to say. Most people are seeking greater connection with their work, and connection thrives on empathic listening. Invite your people to tell you more and share their experience of the situation. Listening to your team isn’t just a gift to them. It benefits the leader too. When leaders can learn to let go of “I already know the answer,” and instead, invite a discussion of what he or she does not fully understand, they receive the benefit of others’ insight. They also gain more trust and respect.

Ask Powerful Questions

Once we have all the facts, we need to analyze them carefully. One of the ways we do this is by learning to ask the right questions, typically open-ended questions that invite discussion. “What can I do to help you succeed in this project?” is a far better question than “Why are you behind schedule with this?” One puts the subordinate on the defensive, the other allows people to come forward with their own solutions, increasing their confidence and ownership over the results. Other questions I like: “What are some different ways we could tackle this?” “What do you need to do to make this work?” “What did this mistake teach you?” “What’s the new insight here?” Good questions empower. Bad questions disempower. The ability to empower others and bring out the best in their problem-solving abilities is one of the hallmarks of great leadership.

Do Something

Once a decision has been made, action is the key. It amazes me in coaching how often people come equipped with the solutions to their own intractable problems. Deep down, we all know what we need to be doing. Execution is the challenge. Ernest Shackelton, the great polar explorer knew the importance of “task” in motivating his crew. Once a course was set, he knew it was vital to keep his men (and huskies) all mushing in the same direction. Even if that direction turned out to be the wrong one. The men would be far less forgiving of indecision and inertia. Once you decide on a course, get going, and keep those huskies moving!

We all panic sometimes, and that’s okay. So long as we don’t make decisions when we’re in that state. Confusion is the chief cause of panic, so if we take a little time to gain clarity within ourselves and with our peers, before jumping ahead, we will make better decisions. Better yet, we may even save some drowning villagers.