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The Work of Leadership

I was thinking about how decisions catch up to us. It may take weeks, months, or even years, but you can’t outrun what is coming for you. I have plenty of examples, but my favorite comes from a client.

Five years ago, this client (in the oil and gas industry) sent me an SOS after botching a round of layoffs. These layoffs were the first in the history of the company and left everyone shell shocked. To complicate matters, in the months leading up to this disruption, the executive leadership team had been working on a reorganization of the company. Many hours of labor had been spent on this project, and it was agreed they would go ahead and move forward with the roll out of the reorg, despite the fact that the company was reeling from the unexpected layoff.

They issued an invite for a “town hall” (my eyes cannot roll back in my head any harder at this term) and all the employees gathered in a large meeting space, unsure of what to expect. Projected on the screen was a deck of slides of the reorg and changes in reporting. As the CEO walked through the reorg, a very, very, very bad thing happened. You see, before the town hall, the team that created the deck failed to go through it with a fine tooth comb and make sure they didn’t leave someone in who had been laid off a week earlier.

Yes, this really happened.

In the midst of his presentation, someone raised their hand and asked, “How can I report to Harold if he was laid off last week?”

This, folks, is what a train wreck looks like.

Does the following qualify as irony or bad timing? I had been there a month earlier to teach my popular class, “The Case of the Frozen Frog: How to be an Adaptable Leader during times of Disruptive Change.” No joke.

Want to wager a guess on how many leaders attended the class?

A big fat zero.

The damage was done, and they hoped I might be able to unring the bell. Get the cow back in the barn. Get the toothpaste back in the tube. Not possible. But we could make sure, moving forward, they didn’t do further damage and botch the recovery of their organization and the spirit of their team members.

About seventy-five company leaders were convened and I was tasked with taking them through change leadership, offering an academic understanding of why most change fails. We would then addressed, “What is the way forward?”

In the room were 74 men and 1 woman.

Tensions were high and my task was to create a space where they could relax, be vulnerable, take 100% accountability for the fall out, and come together to collaborate on real solutions.

Two hours in, we had not made headway. I felt resistance throughout the room as people resisted making eye contact, talking, or even listening. When they did talk, it was almost always an obfuscation of some sort, pointing the finger, shifting the blame elsewhere. They were checked out and their bodies signaled resentment.

Then, like an angel sent from heaven, one of the younger managers raised his hand. I had met him previous to this meeting and liked him a great deal. He began to talk and, 30 seconds in, I sensed he was not going to hold back. He was ready to say the hard stuff and challenge his colleagues to have the conversation that was actively being avoided. The more he talked, the more proud I felt of him.

In terms of “importance” he was at the lower end of the totem poll compared to the rest of the leaders in the room. He was a living example of one of my core beliefs:

Leaders use their voice to say what everyone is too afraid to say.

He spoke up. He used his voice without provoking outrage or cynicism because he cared about his company and their collective future. He made a choice to be brave instead of toeing the line and behaving. In that moment he became a real leader. Bam!

Man, lots of mixed metaphors, but oh well! I love it. I live for these moments of pure bravery. They are rare, and when they happen, I make sure to never forget I was there to witness it. After his display of courage, the room opened up. We moved from competing monologues to real dialogue. The group was ready to forge a plan to find the way forward.

Is there a moral to the story?

I think there are a few.

  1. Always check the slide deck and update. :)

  2. The roosters will come home to hatch. Pray you have a courageous person who is willing to name it and help find the way forward.

  3. Be that leader. Use your voice. Speak up while others cower and avoid eye contact.

This is the work of leadership.

A mess up is not an IF but a WHEN scenario.

Things will go wrong. But if you have done the work, you can show up with courage and confidence and make sure those roosters are singing a different tune.


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