When Not To Do What’s Expected

Here’s The Thing

Figuring out how to deal with it would be easier if I had an outline. I could just move from point to point, only needing to fill in the details as I proceed. Knowing what I was doing wouldn’t be necessary. I would always just be following the outline. I could easily convince myself that I was my own person, acting on my own initiative, but that outline would always be there. Once I figured out how to complete the current step, I would know in advance what the next step would be, and the one after that, and the one after that. Maybe not my plan, but I could feel like it was my plan.

But what is the it in figuring out how to deal with it? Unfortunately, there is little difference whether it is life itself or the project I am working on today, whether it is how I spend my week or how to peel a banana. There is always an outline, a set of habitual steps or usual procedures. Most of the time and in most situations, I know what comes next. I need only follow the outline.

Now and then, I come across a situation, circumstance or problem where knowing what to do or how to proceed aren’t obvious. There appears not to be an outline. Nothing is telling me what’s next.

Here’s The Thing

When the situation, circumstance or problem passes – and they always eventually pass – I look back at what I did or didn’t do, how I dealt with whatever was going on. From that perspective, I assess my actions or lack of action. I now see what wasn’t apparent. I understand why I did or did not do this or that, what I could have or shouldn’t have done. I am able to retrospectively recognize the outline I followed or perhaps the outline I should have followed. The outline was there for me had I been smart enough, clever enough or insightful enough to see it and then follow it.

I’m not thinking that there is always a best way or right way to proceed. Even so, I do think that there are always better ways and worse ways, more correct and more incorrect ways to deal with things. Sometimes the outline is explicit, including specific step by step instructions; and sometimes it’s little more than guidelines or implicit suggestions. Even so, the outline is there, encouraging me to follow along.

Here’s The Thing

Since the outline is always there either prospectively or retrospectively, seeing it doesn’t seem like it should be such a hit and miss kind of thing for me. Even more confounding is thinking that I see the outline but learning later that the outline I picked was the wrong outline. I don’t get it. A good or at least sufficient outline is always there, so why do I sometimes pick the wrong outline or skip over the outline thing altogether?

I’m embarrassed to admit to how many times I have glanced at the instructions for one thing or another and tossed them aside or even worse, didn’t even bother with a glance. Granted, that usually works out but sometimes things don’t quite get the outcome I expect. More often than I want to admit, the outcome is far worse than I could have imagined. That happens with written instructions but also comes up when I don’t listen to the directions or advice of people who should and do know better than I do. I just plough ahead.

At other times, I know I don’t know what to do or how to do things but decide to proceed anyway. I tell myself things like I’ll fake it until I make it or perhaps convince myself that I can get away with making it up as I go along. Since I’m confessing, the truth is that I think I’m smart enough and clever enough to get away with just acting like I know what I’m doing. …

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So You Want a Super Power; But What If…?

Scene 1:

Were I to tell you that our protagonist in the tale I’m about to tell you is tall, dark and handsome, you might ding me for falling back on warn out clichés but we would likely get past my literary laziness. If instead I described the leading character as short, fat and ugly, you would probably hesitate long enough to wonder if you are interested in what happens. But if I were to tell you that short, fat and ugly actually describes the villain in the tale, all would be well.

Were I to tell you that our protagonist in the tale I’m about to tell you has extraordinary personal skills, unique talents and access to exceptional resources, not only would you likely express no surprise, you would have been surprised if having at least one of the three (extraordinary personal skills, unique talents or access to exceptional resources) was not the case. That’s just what’s expected for any self-respecting protagonist. The villain in our tale may also have extraordinary personal skills, unique talents and access to exceptional resources but has to use them to indiscriminately pursue illegal, immoral or evil ends. The villain has to play bad guy to our protagonist good guy.

Were I to tell you that our protagonist in the tale I’m about to tell you is brilliant, clever and willing to skirt the rules to thwart the villain, I suspect you would be all in, ready to cheer and be amazed. It’s not a problem if the villain is also brilliant and clever but skirting the rules has a quite different flavor. Where our protagonist’s rule skirting can only serve to thwart the villain and close associates, all rules are off for the villain. Causing harm indiscriminately to whomever gets in the way is business as usual for villains. Even so, in the end the villain is not quite as brilliant and clever as our protagonist and indiscriminate rule skirting turns out to be the key to the villain’s downfall.

In the tale I’m about to tell you, the protagonist is not tall, dark and handsome; does not have extraordinary personal skills, unique talents and access to exceptional resources; and is certainly not brilliant, clever and willing to skirt the rules to thwart the villain. I share this with you up front with a good measure of concern and apprehension. What will you do as soon as you find out that our protagonist fits none of your preconceptions of the protagonist in any tale you know of or have ever imagined? Even worse, what will you do when you discover that this tale has no villain, with or without brilliance, cleverness or dastardly rule-skirting proclivities? I worry but know that there is not much else for me to do but to take a deep breath and trust that you will hang in there with me.

Scene 2:

I might as well get this out of the way right now. Our protagonist has a name so continuing to say “our protagonist” is not necessary. His name is Bert. I know, any of us could have come up with a better name for the protagonist of most any tale but Bert it is. As I have taught myself to say when things don’t go like I might have preferred, it is what it is. So Bert it is and Bert it shall stay.

Bert is neither tall nor short. He is what they call about average. He is not particularly handsome or ugly either, although his mother still calls him her handsome boy. Go figure. Mothers do that sort of thing. He is also neither especially brilliant nor clever. Again, when I think of Bert, “average” comes to mind. When you get down to it, he is pretty much like the rest of us – somewhere in between. The same so-so works for Bert as works for me and perhaps for you.

Bert is not old but is not young either. He is in that comfortable time between being too young to be taken seriously yet or too old to be taken seriously any more. He has reconciled with his more or less unremarkable skills and talents and is really okay with just being Bert. When he was young, he fit in fine with others his age, sharing the same frustrations, the same challenges and the same fantasies. That hasn’t changed much over the years. He still has his frustrations, his challenges and his fantasies. The main change has come with new fantasies. Visions of being a super hero with amazing powers of some ilk have transitioned to not being in the middle any more. Bert daydreams of being the best, the most successful, the winner in whatever game he envisions for himself.

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A Little Better Than I Am

“learn from the experts.” This is the standard advice for getting better at most anything. Identify the best in class (The BIC) for whatever you are doing or want to do, and then follow his or her lead.

But how do you do that, given that neither you nor I is likely to have personal access to The BIC for anything we decide to pursue, hope to get better at?

That one is pretty easy. We read his or her book, since The BIC in nearly any area most always has written a book, and usually more than one. We also will likely have little trouble finding an article, blog, podcast, YouTube video or an interview featuring The BIC. Whatever the media, the keys to his or her success are close at hand, with only a little digging on our part.

But maybe not….

If checking in with The BIC and following his or her lead works for you or even seems like it might work for you, go for it. My experience assures me that it can’t hurt anything. That experience also assures me that reading the books and listening to the interviews are unlikely to ramp up your game nearly as much as the hype that accompanies the media promises. An anecdote may or may not be helpful. You decide.

About fifteen years or so ago, I decided that ramping up my leadership game would be a good idea. At that time, my leadership was adequate but certainly not best in class. I personally knew at least a couple of people who were more skilled leaders, from my perspective.

A quick review of the literature told me that just who is The Leadership BIC is definitely up for debate, but those who think they are in the running are not in short supply. That was true then and is no less true now. Since I doubt that there is not just one leader who deserves the title, I group those near BIC status as leadership gurus.

With this in mind, I committed to reading a hundred guru written books on leadership. That, I thought, was a nearly certain way of ramping up my leadership game, perhaps even to the guru status. How silly of me, thinking I could read my way to guru.

It was certainly an interesting experience and did ramp up my game. It was just that it didn’t help my leadership performance all that much. I didn’t become a noticeably better leader. What I did become was a significantly better leadership talker. I could talk the leadership talk with the best of them.

Had I been motivated, I could have written my own leadership book and then joined the book-article-podcast-YouTube-interview circuit. I was well-qualified to represent myself as a leadership guru. I was not necessarily a better leader; but I could definitely play the guru game.

My only real limitation was that I wasn’t a successful CEO of a mega organization, a winning coach, a famous personality, a victorious general or eminent scholar from a prestigious university. Those tags automatically certify one as a highly skilled leader, although – to quote my grandpa – “It ain’t necessarily so.”

The “a little better” principle….

If tapping into the wisdom of the leadership gurus did not result in my leadership game noticeably ramping up, what accounts for my leadership skills improving over time? As with most of us as we do most anything over time, I became a more effective leader the more time and effort I invested in leading. Sure, this is largely a self-assessment; but even so, it’s rather apparent that I was a better leader at sixty-five than I was at twenty-five. Let me simply hope that this fits in an obvious way with your experience and the point of this post resonates for you.

My leadership skills have improved through trial and error; and I have assuredly made my fair share of leadership errors. The improvement came not as much through learning from the errors as through learning to avoid the errors in the first place. When some action of mine didn’t have the outcome I wanted, I spent less time trying to figure out why it hadn’t worked and most time and energy thinking about what would work the next time.

Here is the secret sauce for me. Starting when I was just getting into management, I became friendly with an older and more experienced manager just down the hall from me. Joe wasn’t a guru or at least he didn’t think of himself as a guru. Even so, I knew that he was a better manager than I was – not a lot better but definitely a little better. The same was true for his leadership skills. I now know that he was a lot better at management and leadership than I was at the time; but I was twenty-five and thought I was better at both than I actually was.

Joe and I spent time talking about our work. More to the point, I spent time telling Joe about the things I was dealing with and he mostly listened. Now and then, he would make a comment or observation about what I had done or was doing. The key take-away is that he never asked me “why” I did this or that dumb thing. His question was always, “How will you handle it the next time that kind of thing comes up?”

As I think back, Joe was only one of several people who I got to know over the years who were a little better at leading than I was –a little better, a little wiser. It took a while, but I eventually realized that there are always people who I know or can get to know who are a little better, a little wiser than I am, no matter how much my insights and skills improve. I get better and wiser a little at a time; and getting to know people who are a little ahead of me is my best way to keep progressing.

Consider this….

If I were a leadership guru, I would just tell you the steps and key take-aways I have determined are the keys to leadership success. You would then be expected to take those keys and open the door to your certain success as a leader, as a person of wisdom. But since I’m not a leadership guru or any other brand of guru, the best I can do is to offer a possibly useful suggestion.

Check around to identify someone who is a little better, a little wiser than you are today in your area of interest. Invest some time and effort in cultivating a relationship with him or her that will give you the occasional opportunity to talk about what you are doing, how you are doing things, or other aspects of your shared interest. Although I can’t guarantee that you will get better and wiser, If you listen carefully, remember what is said and think about your conversations now and then, I think it’s pretty certain that you will indeed get better and wiser. Even if you don’t, the time will still have been worth the effort. You will at least have someone interesting to hang out with now and then.

Now you know, so there you go.