Mind Your Gaps

I had the opportunity several years ago to sit in on a presentation to a group of senior leaders. The presentation was from a speaker who uses Civil War history to teach leadership lessons. 

As someone who was required to take Military History as part of my high school curriculum I can tell you that military battles offer great insights into leadership successes and failures. I was excited to hear the presentation. 

The presentation focused on The Battle of Gettysburg which began on July 1st, 1863. During the first hours of battle, Union General John Reynolds was killed while leading his troops from the front. Outnumbered, the union forces were stymied for a time and it took awhile for them to regroup.

After sharing the story of the early hours of that famous battle the presenter asked the assembled group of senior leaders whether or not General Reynolds made the right decision in leading from the front. He had exposed himself to enemy fire and left his troops without his leadership as a result.

The leadership team in the room had differing opinions as to the wisdom of General Reynolds decision. Some thought it better if he had “lead from the rear” thus protecting himself from direct conflict. They felt that he jeopardized the mission by putting himself in harms way. You could see their point considering that his death did seem to slow down the union forces for a time. 

Others thought he showed true leadership by putting himself out front. Their point was that a leader shouldn’t ask their people to do something that they as a leader were unwilling to do. They also pointed out that since the Union forces eventually won his decision was proven correct. Also a good point. 

But here’s what I truly found fascinating; most had an opinion. They had this opinion in spite of having very little actual information about how the battle unfolded. There were a lot of “gaps” in the story of the battle as presented. (I’m sure the presenter did that mostly in the interest of time)

So how did this room full of top leaders come to an opinion with so little information? How did they know if General Reynolds had made the right decision despite the “gaps” in the story?

They did what all leaders, all people actually, do when they need to make a decision without all available information….they filled in the gaps with information from their own experiences. 

As I observed these key leaders offer their opinions I knew immediately which ones would accept risk in a decision and which ones would be more cautious…perhaps too cautious to lead in difficult circumstances. 

Those who believed that Reynolds had made the right call were willing to accept some level of risk and those who thought he had made the wrong call likely were not willing to accept that same level of risk. 

If time had permitted and the presenter had filled in the gaps himself then the audience wouldn’t have needed to supplant the story with their own experiences. In that case I really would not have been able to assess their appetite for risk. 

That same scenario plays out in business all the time. Leaders and their people make decisions even when they don’t have all the information that they wish they had. They simply use information from their own life history to fill in the gaps. 

That’s why two smart people, presented with identical, if incomplete information, can reach such differing conclusions. 

As a leader it is imperative that you know you’re people well. The better you know them and especially the better you understand them, the better you’ll understand the information they use to fill in their gaps. 

It’s also vital that you understand where your own “gap filling” information comes from. 

Understanding how both you and your people mind their gaps will help you see how two very different conclusions could both seem correct. 

Now, as to General Reynolds…the only mistake we can actually confirm he made was getting himself shot. As a good military leader he knew full well that his ultimate goal was not dying for the North, his ultimate goal was making as many Confederate troops as possibly die for the South. 

In that effort he failed completely.

Change is Not Optional

Most people (how’s that for a wide generalization) don’t like change. Actually, they are okay with change so long as the change doesn’t affect them personally. The worst change of course is the kind that impacts some long held belief or tradition. 

But today, in a world where “traditions” are increasingly tossed aside, where organizations are told that they must innovate or face extinction, change is not optional. The very next innovation could be the one that extends the life of your organization or sends it to the ash heap of the formerly successful innovators. 

But here’s the problem; organizations can’t innovate, only people can.

I was once asked how to teach people to be innovative. My answer was almost instinctive, I said you don’t teach people to innovate, you hire innovative people. Upon further reflection I’d answer that you hire people who care about making a difference and people who want to “leave something behind” for their organization. You then place them in an innovative environment.

Innovation is a people driven process and what makes it so challenging is that people are emotional. They constantly, if even subconsciously, balance risk with reward. 

Even though the desire to innovate may be high the need for safety and security is higher. It’s the fear of losing that security that prevents innovative people from innovating.

That’s why organizations that want to be around in 25 years require especially strong leadership. Not just strong leadership “at the top,” but strong leadership at every level of the organization. 

Those strong leaders must provide an environment where failure is not just tolerated but celebrated as a step forward and and a learning opportunity. Those leaders must provide an environment where well considered risk is not just allowed but encouraged, maybe even demanded.

Much of the technology used in business today was unimaginable by most people just 10 or 15 years ago. The speed at which technology is changing and improving is increasing literally every day. It is truly unimaginable what that technology will look like in a mere 5 years. 

This much we do know: if you’re a leader and you’re not providing your people an environment where taking thoughtful risk is encouraged and occasional failure is risk free then your people will fight the change needed to succeed tomorrow.

If you’re a leader who wants continued success then take charge of change before change takes charge of you.

 

Did Curiosity Kill the Cat?

As the saying goes… curiosity killed the cat. I don’t actually think that’s true. The cat might be dead but I’d say it was more likely bad planning than curiosity that did the kitty in.

I’d say that because one of the most common characteristics of successful people is curiosity. Their need to know how something works, their need to understand why it works that way, and their need to know if there is a better way for it to work pushes them to try new things. 

Successful people are seldom willing to merely accept the status quo. 

They take risks. Not wild risks but well thought out, well measured and well considered risks. Their curiosity, or need to know, drives them to expose the “as is” to the possibilities of the “could be.” They know that without a doubt good enough never really is good enough. 

Successful people develop a plan that allows them to minimize the downside of risk taking. They understand the potential for failure and they are willing to accept that risk. What they won’t accept is the failure that comes from not trying, or the failure that comes from a lack of curiosity. 

Successful people know that never taking a risk is the riskiest move they can make. 

When you ask a truly successful person “why do you do it that way?” you will never hear, “because we have always done it that way.”  They know exactly why they do what they do and why something is done a certain way because their curiosity has motivated them to learn.

I’d bet a bunch a money that if curiosity really did kill the cat that the cat thought learning something new was worth the risk and hey, at least the cat died knowing. 😊

So what about you? Are you the type of cat that needs to know? Will you allow curiosity to fuel your success? 

I, and you, need to know….