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You don’t get medals for common sense — but perhaps you should get a pat on the back.
Edwin van Calker, driver on the Dutch four-man bobsled team, told his coach that he would not pilot the bobsled down the icy, treacherous track at Whistler Sliding Centre at the Vancouver Olympic Games. His coach Tom de la Hunty said, “I’ve never seen someone get to a major event and not compete because they’re scared. You keep your inner fears to yourself and do it.”
Not van Calker. He had crashed on the track during the two-man bobsled competition and did not think he could safely pilot the much heavier four-man sled. And he didn’t blame the track, which has seen multiple crashes and the death of a Ukrainian luger at the start of the Games. “[J]ust my lack of confidence at the moment.”
Perhaps there is a lesson for leaders in van Calker’s admission. The mettle of a leader is tested by adversity; history lauds those leaders who take on the odds and win. But savvy leaders are those who also know when to say no. Unfortunately, we brand folks like that as quitters, when it may be more correct to say they have the guts to know when they’re licked.
So how do you evaluate whether you should take on that challenge, or back down? Here are some thoughts.
Know the odds. Assess what you are up against. You can often quantify a challenge through the metrics you employ to manage your business. Weigh the costs of going forward against the costs of holding back. Try not to undercount the costs on either side. Remember, this type of equation is often used to justify mergers and acquisitions, where two businesses come together to avoid competition that will tear them apart. Yet most mergers end in failure.
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John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He is the author of eight books, including Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. See his archived blog at http://blogs.hbr.org/baldoni.
discourage: verb. To deprive of confidence, hope, or spirit.
encourage: verb. To inspire with hope, courage, or confidence; hearten.
I don’t remember the source, but years ago, I heard an interview with a laid off auto worker. His plant was being shut down. He said something like this: “I did everything right. I worked hard. I never missed a day of work. I was promoted. I did what they told me to do. And now…,” and then he trailed off.
He sounded… disheartened.
There really are forces beyond the control of many individual workers. And of all the things I sense about today’s work environment, fear is seemingly omnipresent, and growing greater. People are worried about their jobs, their careers, their futures, their mortgages, their children’s future… It is a tough time.
So, I thought about the terrific book I read and first presented years ago, Encouraging the Heart. But I did not just think of the content, though it is excellent. I thought of the title itself. I thought of the need of the hour – and I think that need is the need for encouragement. People are discouraged, disheartened. And they need to be heartened.
Whatever else a leader brings to his or her workers, encouragement needs to be at the top of the list.
Do you lead people? Are you encouraging them – or discouraging them?
Here’s how I worded it in my introduction for my presentation for Encouraging the Heart:
we all need to be encouraged to do our best. Literally — we need to be encouraged; we need to receive encouragement, in order to do our best.
And this much is clear — no leader should ever do any discouraging. There will be more than enough discouragement coming from other sources…
Bob Morris has interviewed Richard Tedlow, the author of Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face—and What to Do About It, here. Here is a quote from Tedlow, excerpted from the book in Business Week, Book Excerpt: Denial at Sears:
There appears to be a persistent belief in once-great companies that have lost their way that if you simply avoid speaking the blunt truth, all the problems will just go away. It is almost as if by telling the truth, you are endowing problems with a reality that they would not otherwise have. It is this brand of magical thinking that leads to shooting the messenger.
There is a long history of companies silencing the messengers. We have stronger and stronger “whistle blower laws,” but companies still find ways to punish, to silence, to “discredit” whistle blowers. And, yes, there are times that whistle blowers are on a personal vendetta, and want to hurt rather than help.
But not always.
When the warnings are clear, and grow louder, of problems around the bend, that is a pretty time to start listening.
For some reason, I think about Scripture more on the weekends, and if you have never read the book of Amos, it may be the purest “here is where things are bad, and we need to face up to this problem and do something about it” piece ever written.
In it is Dr. Martin Luther King’s most well-known quote from Scripture: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). But the short, entire book is quite an “it’s time to get honest, and face the music, and make some changes” piece of writing.
So, this is a simple reminder – sometimes we need to hear painful truth. And when we choose not to listen, we are not being very smart.