Courage to face the squiggly things


Courage. It’s a word that evokes knights and superheroes. But courage is not for the elite, the bold warrior. It is for the everyday person stepping into moments of vulnerability but doing it anyway. Each day, as leaders of ourselves and of others, we need to demonstrate moments of courage and over the next 8 weeks we will explore areas that we need to show courage in. This week it is the ‘courage to face the squiggly things’.


Over the last few months, you may, like many at this time of year, have been clearing and tidying your garden. Pruning, sweeping, digging. At some point, this activity inevitably leads to discovering the ‘squiggly things’. Worms, bugs, spiders, creepy crawlies. As I grew up on a farm, these creatures don’t really bother me. In fact, they fascinate me as I watch them go about their business. But for some people they strike fear in their hearts. The rock is quickly turned back over to cover them in a kind of ‘if I can’t see them, they don’t exist’ approach. But the thing is, they are still there . . still doing their thing.


Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great (2001), quotes Fred Purdue, a Pitney Bowes executive who said “When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can either put the rock down, or you can say, ‘My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things,’ even if what you see can scare the hell out of you.” As leaders, our role is to set direction of travel for the organisation, define what it is we are aiming for and ensure that together we remove the barriers to getting there. This therefore inevitably leads to spotting the ‘squiggly things’, the bugs that eat away at the vision. So, why do some leaders find it hard to either a) consider there might even be ‘squiggly things’, b) have the courage to lift the rock, c) examine the ‘squiggly things’ to consider their impact and d) do something about the destructive ‘squiggly things’.


Consider the ‘squiggly things’

The purpose of Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great, was to help people see the difference between the companies that did ok and those that became great. One of the key differences is honest and rigorous self-evaluation. The ability to regularly understand what is working well but what needs to improve. Establishing an improvement culture ensures weakness is eliminated and replaced with strength. So, if it is so helpful, why do many not even consider that there might be ‘squiggly things’. Maybe it is pride, admitting a weakness looks bad on the leader. But we need to fight this mindset. The ability to acknowledge there could be ‘squiggly things’ is not a weakness. It is wisdom. Leading others involves change and movement and just like life in general it is likely to have things that go against the direction of travel. Successfully creating a new direction or culture, needs regular review and checks.


Key question to ask yourself:

Is there anything holding me back from even considering that things might not be 100%?


Courage to lift the rock

Once you acknowledge that plans normally are interrupted by something, then the next element of courage is the courage to look closely, to lift the rock. And for some, this is hard. It is hard because there may be fear. Fear of now knowing how to deal with what you might find. We need courage. Courage, as Brene Brown puts it, has an inexplicable dance with vulnerability. To be courageous we need to step into vulnerability, take a risk. To step into vulnerability, we need courage. We may well not immediately know what to do with the ‘squiggly things’ when we see them. But that is what your team, or a coach if you have one, is there to help you with. Our role as a leader is not to know everything. Our role as a leader is to work with people to get us there.


Key question to ask yourself:

What scares me about lifting the rock? Is it people’s reactions?

Is it worry that I won’t know what to do? Who could help you?


Courage to examine the ‘squiggly things’

Surely they just are all ‘squiggly things’ doing their destructive squiggly things. It is too easy to look at squiggly things and think they are all up to mischief. It would then be too easy to stamp a big foot down on it all. But it is important to have the courage to stop, to take time to examine what is happening and why it is happening. Stamping on one set of squiggly things will just result in more squiggly things taking their place if we a) don’t understand how they got there in the first place and b) examine the impact each ‘squiggly thing’ is having. Ironically, some ‘squiggly things’ may actually be helping and we need to know the difference.


Key question to ask yourself:

What holds me back from thorough examination of the issues? What could help me examine it thoroughly?


Courage to do something about the destructive ‘squiggly things’

Fred Purdue said we need to ‘look at the squiggly things’. But this is only half of it. We then need to do something about the destructive ‘squiggly things’. We perhaps have all fallen into this as leaders. We are aware something ‘squiggly’ is going on. We know it is a little destructive but we fail to take action. Maybe it is because we don’t know what to do with the squiggly things. As we said earlier, that is ok to not know everything. But it is not ok to not do anything about it. If you had wood worm, you wouldn’t ignore it as it can destroy the wood in your home and potentially cause collapse. It needs to be treated. So, when you see something growing in your culture that is unhelpful then try to cut it out sooner rather than later, before it takes hold. See it, call it and enlist your team collectively to remedy it.


Key question to ask yourself:

What is the impact if I keep watching and don’t act?

Who could help me act upon the issues?


In my experience, it is often the fear of the ‘squiggly thing’ than is far worse than the actual ‘squiggly thing’. It is the fear story we tell ourselves and then we do actually deal with it, most times it is not as bad as we expected. Having the courage to deal with ‘squiggly things’ can be supported by working with a coach or working with your team to deal with the issues. So, go on, step into the vulnerability, be courageous, take it one step at a time, lift the rock and deal with the ‘squiggly things’.

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