It was the kind of gift any twelve-year-old dreams about. In fact Michael had dreamt about it for some time in anticipation of his forthcoming birthday. Michael is the son of good friends and not from our cave, just in case you were wondering.
The gift in question was a radio-controlled car, the control mechanism being a watch that the ‘driver’ wears. A pretty neat gadget in anyone’s toy box!
Water and electronics don’t make happy bedfellows and the watch and the swimming pool were no exception. Forgetting the wonder-gadget on his wrist, Michael dived into the inviting blue water on what was a scorcher of a day.
Of course there were the usual recriminations but they soon faded because what had happened had happened. There was no denying it and no use crying over spilt milk. Easy for me to write; I wasn’t the one who broke the bank to get the toy.
What was interesting were the ‘options’ that presented themselves as possible solutions to the ‘tragedy’. One that was suggested was to open the gadget, dry the circuitry, reassemble it and take it back to the place of purchase as ‘faulty’ and in need of replacement.
I have no doubt that for some this course of action would have been rationalised in any number of ways and acted upon.
Some lesson that would have been for a twelve-year-old!
Another option would be to do nothing. Naturally there would be the impulsive voice wanting to deal with the misfortune by simply replacing the drowned gift. After all, it was his birthday and this was the main event.
Again, what message would that have sent to Michael?
No doubt the gap left and the trauma surrounding the event will be felt for a long time by all concerned, and especially the Birthday Boy. In fact, I doubt if he will ever forget his twelfth birthday.
And it is that ‘gap’ which provides the never-to-be-forgotten lesson. Fill the gap, as empowered parents could, and the value of the lesson is lost.
This is hard for most leaders, yet it is often the most appropriate course of action even if it is one that runs the risk of being misunderstood. The temptation to intervene is strong. To exercise control, use authority, take action . . . to, well, lead.
Semco’s Ricardo Semler refers to this passive response as ‘active omission’. Not only does he have a name for it but it is a central theme in his management philosophy and style. Of course there is a unique environment in which active omission occurs and to understand this fully you will have to read his book, The Seven Day Weekend, where he provides several practical examples of just how this works. The case for this course of inaction is best understood against the backdrop of process.
No two processes are alike and leaders (well, smart ones at least) understand the importance of process. It requires toughing out the ‘gaps’, being patient when things become uncomfortable and avoiding the temptation to give answers, fix, mend or heal.
So take a lesson from a small boy’s mishap and the response of his wise parents.
Doing nothing is often the best course of action.
Others often refuse leaders the space to do nothing. One reason for this is that it becomes far too threatening as they may be faced with taking responsibility. It is easier to hide behind leaders or blame them when things don’t work out. It then always becomes someone else’s fault and we deny ourselves and others the space to grow through situations that, in normal circumstances, demand action.
This is a tough thing to understand. You’ll need to give it a great deal of thought . . . and perhaps read Semler. I wish you luck!