How long have you been leading? It doesn't take many years leading others to realise that, to coin a phrase that I use in my training, 'plop happens'. It's a polite way of saying that in life and leadership bad things occur. Things you don't want to happen. Things that bring pain. Things of your worst nightmares. Things that go wrong, despite best plans. Things of betrayal from those you trusted. Things of death or loss of a team member. Things you can't foresee or plan for. Whether it is in life or in leadership, the brain is hardwired to try to make sense of it. As a leader, you often review it to see if there are things you can learn, to avoid it happening again. But sometimes, despite the review, some things just don't make sense.
So, how do you deal with things like that? How can you gain a sense of purpose from it or a sense of closure?
Sometimes, the understanding comes much later. For example, a loss of an important client or contract means a new, better situation comes later. Sometimes the job termination leads to a better one or better work/life balance. But sometimes, in reality, we still don't find a solution or learning point from the 'plop' situation. We still feel the pain as a person, as well as a leader. So what can you do then? Maybe, it's about looking for the collateral beauty.
I recently watched the film Collateral Beauty. For those who weep easily in films, this one will make you cry. It is about a brilliant leader of a design agency called Howard (played by Will Smith), whose young daughter dies of cancer, sending his world into a spin. It follows him as he copes with his daughter's death by writing letters to time, death, and love. His fellow business partners and friends hire a trio of struggling actors to masquerade as Death, Time, and Love to confront Howard about his letters. After his encounters with these actors, Howard attends a grief support group and befriends Madeleine, who has lost her daughter, Olivia, to cancer, which led to the end of her marriage. Howard tells her about his recent "conversations" with Death, Time, and Love. She tells him that on the day Olivia died, an old woman at the hospital had told her to notice the "Collateral Beauty", which she has since learned to recognise as acts of selfless kindness that follow tragedies. It is a great film, (with some twists that I won't spoil for you) and helped me make a little sense of some of the 'plop things' of life and leadership.
You see, what you focus on is crucial. If we remain focused on the pain of a situation then pain remains our focus. Focus on collateral beauty and it helps to gain a wider perspective and maybe create steps to guide you out of the pain or frustration.
Recently, I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. I'm still learning about this, but basically I was fat from eating too much of the wrong thing and not doing enough exercise and the body struggles to deal with the sugars in my system. That is fairly 'ploppy', but in all honesty it is due to my choices of poor diet and lack of exercise. So, I've made changes. A strict diet and running have helped me lose 2 1/2 stone since January and last Saturday I took part in the Debenham 5k.
And this is where I saw some collateral beauty of having Type 2 Diabetes. My friend Dave, knowing this was my first proper run said to me, "would you like someone to run with you?" It was great. Throughout the run, he would tell me how I was doing a great job and even what rate we were running at. What was even more great was that he and his daughter Millie had travelled miles from a family weekend away, with their family's support, to come back to do it. Faithfulness of a friend, a little collateral beauty of Type 2 Diabetes.
Smell the flowers not the manure
The same can be applied to other situations you face as a leader. When there seems to be no sense in what has happened, look to see the collateral beauty around you. Faithful friends who stick by you. . . Opportunities that come along that may not have been possible before. . . A little more time with family. . . An understanding that you have gained. . . A renewed appreciation of life. . . Staff members who begin to appreciate each other more. . . A company that sticks by you when others have left.
When we are trying to make improvements and things are tough or going wrong, it can feel like working in the garden in the flower or vegetable bed. We spend so much time digging in manure that we smell all the 'plop' and fail to take time to notice the flowers that are beginning to grow from it. Collateral beauty is just taking the time to look at and smell the flowers.
Collateral beauty doesn't remove pain or frustration. It just helps makes it a little more palatable. It perhaps also helps create a few stepping stones to help you make sense of the 'plop'.