Part Four: Stay Open Rather Than Attached To Outcomes
Leaders often walk a tightrope between staying the course and being agile. It’s easy to forget there is a long and fruitful path between single-minded rigidity and being so open-minded that your brains fall out. I’ll call this leadership paradox “clear-sighted openness.” The key to holding it lies in attending to the fourth “way”—staying open, rather than attached, to outcomes. The real prize comes from integrating all four pieces of wisdom. I’ve focused on each of the others in earlier posts—show up; honor your heart; speak your truth without blame or judgment. Staying open rather than attached to outcomes is the topic of this post.
Lessons from a Post-it Note
In 1968 Dr. Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, led a team tasked with inventing a super-strong aeronautical adhesive to hold wings on airplanes. They had one particularly miserable failure—a low tack adhesive that was not at all strong, but was very long-lasting and could be used and re-used over and over again. Sound familiar? Do pieces of square yellow paper come to mind? We now call it “Post-It Note” adhesive! It’s used on every imaginable office supply from the original square notes to full size flip-chart pages and more.
Silver saw the potential for this “failure” early and worked to get it noticed internally at 3M. It wasn’t until 1974 when a colleague, Art Fry, took up the cause that it started to get traction. 3M brought it to market in the US in 1980 and it shot to popular use here and around the world. “Post-its” are now iconic—part of our everyday world.
Had Dr. Silver been fully attached to the outcome of “glue for airplane wings,” he might not have recognized what was in front of him and said “Wow, it’s not what we were going for, but there is some real potential here.” Where would we be today without Post-it notes?? It’s hard to imagine a work or a home environment without it.
Clear-sighted Openness—Embracing the Paradox
Leaders solve problems. That’s what they’re known for. We can call them opportunities or challenges rather than problems. Whatever you call them, leaders are regularly asked to solve, manage, and leverage them. The higher in an organization or system you rise, the more complex the scenarios are that land on your desk. Sometimes you must handle them alone, other times you lead a team of people to solve them, but always the expectation is that you will solve it.
With that pressure for results and the waiting list of other problems to solve as soon as you’re done with the one in front of you, the temptation is huge to focus on a pre-determined outcome and drive towards it “come hell or high water.” And I will say there are situations when that is a perfectly reasonable and efficient approach.
And then there are the other kinds of opportunities, challenges, problems—the complex and strategic ones where the answer is not obvious. Can we make a glue to keep wings on airplanes? For those higher order questions, focusing on creating solutions rather than particular outcomes can unlock creative ideas and big opportunities.
A leader who has a clear vision of success without a predetermined blueprint for getting there allows for possibilities to emerge and get their due. Leaders and teams who keep a “yes, and …” attitude rather than a “yes, but…” or, worse yet, a “No way!” attitude are virtually guaranteed richer outcomes. Is success defined merely as a wicked strong adhesive, or is success defined as becoming the dominant, game-changing market leader in a whole new line of products?
Powerful leaders ask themselves regularly—what’s truly important here and what merely masquerades as important?
Four Fold Way–Putting the pieces together
Show Up … Honor Your Heart … Speak Your Truth Without Blame or Judgment … Stay Open Rather Than Attached To Outcomes
The beauty of the Four Fold Way model applied to leadership is that it is infinitely customizable to the leader who uses it—your presence, your values, your truth, your openness all combine in different ways for different situations to make your leadership fresh, effective, authentic, and powerful.
Happy New Year—here’s to being more authentically ourselves in 2013!
Oh by the way, the now copyrighted canary yellow color of the original square Post-it notes was also an accident—a lab next door to the Post-it team had scrap yellow paper that the team used for the first prototypes. Keep an open mind! You never know what you might be starting!