One early morning in March, a torrential Texas rain pounded for a couple of hours while I worked from a coffee shop downtown. By the time I was prudently driving north up I-35 in the middle lane toward Lewisville, the deluge of rain had softened to rivulets. Suddenly an 18-wheeler was charging along the highway divider to my left. Before danger could register, a dense sheet of water covered my windshield, and I was driving blind at 55 mph.
“Hold steady and trust,” was my first thought, and I slowly eased my foot off the accelerator believing for the streaming water to subside.
Five years ago, panic (an emotion) would likely have caused me to react – to slam on the brake or jerk the steering wheel away from the truck – either of which could have caused harm to others or myself. Why was I able to remain calm and steady?
During my own journey to become a better leader of myself, I discovered that emotion could limit my performance, e.g., my ability to see the larger picture, to view the situation from the perspective of others, to impact people in ways I did not intend, and/or to make depersonalized decisions that were better for all involved.
In fact, I would say that emotion, e.g., impatience, anger, passion or self-doubt, was my own personal Kraken: a mythological octopus-like creature that would unexpectedly surface from the depths of the sea to wrap its tentacles around unsuspecting ships and sink all aboard to the ocean floor.
People and organizations typically invest in knowledge (How) or skills/talents (What) but miss the key to achieving the predictable, repeatable, sustainable results they desire by not investing the time and effort to nurture and develop the person – the Who (Why).
Imagine an enthusiastic woman named Carelotta who is very proud of the MBA she earned from a prestigious university which lands her a premier position at Rocky Mountain Climbing Company (RMCC). Before she begins her ascent, the company sends Carelotta to their 2-month training program to instruct her about the best ways to survey the terrain, to move her feet, and to perform all the tasks listed in her lengthy job description.
RMCC outfits Carelotta with the sturdiest hiking boots, a darling hat with a camera that can send images to her stylish wristwatch that communicates her vitals and metrics like speed per rock, pebble distribution and path efficiency directly to HQ. Her manager, Ms. Granite, explains exactly which route she should climb toward Rock 52 and gives her a hearty “You can do it!” push. Unfortunately, when Ms. Granite returns to check on Carelotta a few months later, she has only made it to Rock 8.
“How can this be? You have an MBA, months of training, and I told you exactly what to do,” her manager bemoans. Not wanting to let Ms. Granite down and afraid to confess what is really holding her back, Carelotta apologizes and promises that she will passionately do all the things she should.
In the next few months, however, Carelotta climbs only to Rock 15. Her manager now exasperated and beginning to miss her own targets, puts Carelotta on a Performance Action Plan. RMCC HR then informs her that if she cannot take the team to at least Rock 42 in the next 6 weeks, she will be asked to seek employment elsewhere.
Dejected and demoralized, Carelotta feels she like cannot get herself or team to rock 19 much less 42. Given all her knowledge and skills she did not expect to have such a challenging road up the mountain. In desperation, she decides to seek counsel from a leader whom she admired and trusted in her last role at Prairieland Petroleum. When her former leader Marjorie asks, “Why do you think you aren’t able to climb?” Carelotta replies simply, “I am afraid of heights.”
Fear is an emotion, and it can show out in different ways. Carelotta’s emotion limited her ability to utilize her education, talents and skills effectively. This personal Kraken thus also sank the people she was supposed to lead – another consequence she surely did not intend.
RMCC and her manager were focused on getting Carelotta to accomplish their goals but were not investing the care to discover who she is, to understand why she performs or cannot perform, or to create an environment for her to discover and remove limitations in her thinking/person – all keys to unlocking the consistent, excellent performance the “leadership” desired.
Uncommon leaders are successful because they know that preparing and bettering the person they are – starting with how they think which shapes attitudes that result in behaviors that elevate or limit actions – will prepare them to be better, to be capable of achieving better outcomes in whatever circumstances may arise, especially the ones they cannot expect.
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