Leading While Naked: Part 3—Enter the Danger
December 31, 2010 8 Comments
In his blog series Leading While Naked, Paul Shultz, Slalom Consulting’s Dallas General Manager, reflects on leadership and the lessons found in Patrick Lencioni’s business fable Getting Naked and Charlene Li’s work Open Leadership. As Paul says: “Leading and managing a professional service firm in today’s connected times, with heartfelt attention to the absolute fact that people matter, proves to be a remarkable journey.”
If you are like me, any time someone in a business setting uses the two words “step” and “fearlessly” in the same sentence, the hair on your neck stands up and your heart rate goes up. But Leading While Naked requires you to step right into the middle of uncomfortable situations and fearlessly deal with the issues everyone else is afraid to address. You know you’re going to feel that hair-raising feeling and you know how all the people in the room are going to react – they’re all going to be looking at you and thinking “I can’t believe he said that” and “he’s right, that is the real issue.”
In Getting Naked, Patrick Lencioni describes this exact moment as entering the dragon and wow, is he right. It’s like the old adage of pointing out the elephant in the room, only this elephant is exceptionally large and very smelly. So large and so smelly that even though many can see it and smell it, no one has either pointed it out or acknowledged the smell. This is a distinctly crisp moment for the Naked consultant to step in with both feet and fearlessly pronounce “hey, does anyone smell that?” Uncomfortable situation? Are you kidding? High return on your emotional risk? You bet!
An old consulting friend (let’s call him Bob) tells the story of trying to help an organization navigate the rocky waters between two senior executives who didn’t see eye to eye on a number of things, including spending levels and investment priorities. One was more short term, cost savings oriented, and the other more long term, revenue growth oriented. You know the push/pull – “operational savings yields the profitability to get to tomorrow” versus “building for tomorrow with today’s dollars yields a much brighter future”. Both good strategic viewpoints that have their merits. And Bob knew what was at stake for the leaders – the ramifications of the degree of adoption of competing strategies would cause contractions in budgets, headcount, and certainly power.
As Bob describes it, his chance to ENTER THE DANGER came at yet another in a long series of meetings with both leaders and their direct reports. He had been invited to describe the proposed initiative (and his team’s consulting involvement) in more detail including how it would affect cost improvements and revenue potential. As Bob’s sponsor passed the baton to Bob to lead this discussion, Bob paused. Something about the exasperated looks on the faces of almost everybody in the room might have been the key. Or maybe his own frustration with the process had grown too much. Or maybe it was just a Tuesday. But right then and there, Bob chose to ENTER THE DANGER.
“Hey look,” Bob started. “You all know enough about this initiative to decide about it on its merits. No other facts can be presented and nothing is different today from yesterday about it.” He took a deep breath and continued, “If this initiative is what is holding you back from agreeing on and moving forward with your overall plans, then it is not worth doing and I am officially withdrawing our proposal right now.” Well, the silence was deafening as all eyes were fixed on Bob. The exasperated looks were gone – replaced with wonderment, shock, awe, disbelief. He had ENTERED THE DANGER and proved he was not afraid of losing the business by acting in the very best interest of his client. In truth it wasn’t likely that Bob’s initiative had much to do with anyone deciding on overall going-forward plans, but Bob was making a vital point and truly doing his best for his client’s best.
He gathered his belongings and slowly rose to leave, and then paused as he neared the door. He might be right; he might be wrong; but he finished the thought. “Can’t you smell it?” he asked as they all stared at him. “It’s the elephant in the room. “ He turned and stood between the two leaders. “In your minds, you are all speculating about the potential impacts of the decisions you need to make. Including the impacts on your personal situations and those of your friends and associates. And about their spouses and families. I know it and you know it, yet you are holding back on moving forward because you won’t discuss that part of the decision. Like it’s off limits for some reason. I’m not sure how you need to deal with it, but in my opinion you need to deal with all that as a part of deciding on your overall plan.”
One visual sweep around suggested he was right. Slight noddings, some knowing side glances, a few heavy sighs. There was no other part of the collective decision that was not being discussed so why weren’t the personal issues being openly considered? Why couldn’t discussions about the humans and the human impact be considered openly in the scope of the decision? Bob turned to go but one of the leaders grabbed his arm. “Bob, please stay. I think both of us agree that your initiative is worthwhile and we should move forward with it. Do you think you can you help us try to have a good conversation about the … well, you know … the personal stuff?”
What a lesson learned.
When you, like Bob, smell the Elephant in the room, will you find the courage and integrity to act at an opportune and decisive moment? It’s probably not the most normal thing to do. You will miss the timing a bit. You won’t get the words exactly right. But when Leading While Naked you must find a way and a time to ENTER THE DANGER. It is NOT optional. As Lencioni says, those who Enter the Danger are seen as acting with courage and integrity. These are qualities that are disarming, attractive, and rare. And deeply valued by clients and by everyone, I think.
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