As a child, I distinctly recall my father telling us an animating dinner table tale of something that happened at work. He was the warden at a maximum-security prison and more than one employee told him that he should write a book about it…
A staff member, who had been brought through the union-driven disciplinary process, did something that would no doubt lend to their eventual dismissal and was taking it personally against my dad. The place was better off without the employee and he was the root cause for many tangential issues. His most recent action was perfect evidence in aid of my dad’s cause of resolving the culture crisis. Expecting a dramatic firing as response, I asked my dad what he would do now that he had this evidence.
He answered: “Show up to work tomorrow, be a nice guy and load the gun.”
This was of course a metaphor since there were no guns in the building. There was only pepper spray, nightsticks, riot gear and plenty of ingenious dangerous weapons the inmates secretly made. Loading the gun meant that he would document it, provide coaching and let the staff member choose his next direction. My dad elaborated with:
“You never fire with the first few bullets because if you miss, you’re done. You load the gun over and over again and when it’s fully loaded, you take your shot. The greatest chance of success comes when you can fire round after round after round. If you miss first few shots, you won’t with the rest.”
Great leaders are patient. Barring any egregious safety or emergency concerns, they are exuberantly patient with the ‘grinding problems’. These are the challenges that left unresolved will not bring immediate catastrophe to the system. Sure, there is risk that they start negative chain events, but great leaders know.
Great leaders respect process and genuinely believe that the grinding problems sometimes do work out. They are not soft, avoiding, or fearful of confrontation, but rather patient, disciplined and gritty. They see the longer-term potential for benefit of firing a full gun and how it outweighs the potentially less effective consequence of firing now.
How do we load the gun?
We document, coach, document more and monitor. We message the team that we are waiting and encourage others to update us of status changes. We don’t react to snapshots but instead anticipate averages. In one folder on my computer called “Executive Journal”, which is further subdivided into folders with employee names and other folders with key issue names, I date entry after entry of updates. It tangibly shows me progress or worsening. It also declutters my mind so the same train is not running over and over again, plugging bandwidth.
Recognize the problems requiring grinding and load the gun. Only after you have diplomatically coached with best interest in mind and have enough supportive documentation can you pull the trigger.
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