In Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” two tramps are waiting by a sickly-looking tree for the arrival of M. Godot. We never learn who Godot is or why he’s important. The tramps quarrel, make up, contemplate suicide, try to sleep, eat a carrot, and gnaw on some chicken bones. Two other characters appear: a cruel master and his slave. The master claims to own the land they are on and has his slave entertain them. A young boy arrives to say that M. Godot will not come today, but that he will come tomorrow. The play ends with one tramp saying to the other, “Well? Shall we go?” “Yes, let’s go,” replies the other tramp. They don’t move. The curtain comes down.
It’s easy to wait for someone else to act. It’s tough to navigate through difficult change and adversity. Strong leaders find the courage to face management crisis and technical issues, pulling them down into the minutiae of details. It is especially about having courageous conversations. That means having the courage to talk about sensitive issues we’ve been avoiding and having the courage to listen to what we don’t want to hear.
Poor time management and overwork — too many e-mails, voice mails, and meetings — are often the result of not enough courage to face issues — either at work or even at home. So we avoid them by burying ourselves in our busyness. For many less-effective managers, volumes of e-mails, voice mails, phone calls, and meetings are a twisted type of status symbol or personal measure of self-worth proving to them and others just how busy, important, and indispensable they are.
I used to mouth the phrase “embrace change.” I’ve changed my perspective on change. Now I realize that “embrace change” is a useless platitude mouthed by someone who hasn’t thought about its full implications or is a masochist. Many changes are impossible to embrace. This list might include loss of a relationship, a loved one, health, job, money, and such.
We rarely choose the adverse changes that spring up. But we always choose how we respond. It’s common to wait in Following Mode. We’re sitting on the fence to see what happens or passively waiting for someone else to do something. There are times when waiting and not acting immediately is quite wise. This might be when we need more information and have to do some research, or to see whether a change is going become a trend, or which way the new boss, government, etc. is going to go.
But Leading Mode is home base to courageous leaders. We’re trying to capitalize on the problem or adversity. Or we may be at least trying to figure out how we can make the best of a bad situation. Like the best ship captains of old, courageous leaders know that we can’t control the wind and currents, but we can adjust our sails to make the best use of the conditions to move toward our destination.
The most dangerous — and cowardly — approach is Wallowing Mode. This means giving in to our fears and playing the victim. We’re bitter, helpless, and feeling like ‘they’ are doing it to us. A list of usual suspects includes “the government,” “my boss or senior management,” “other departments,” “customers,” or “workers.”
These problems can make our life difficult, but what matters is how we frame them. Courageous leaders face these issues head-on by focusing on what’s within their direct control or influence. They figure out how to let go of, or at least not ‘awfulize’ and give more power to problems or issues that can’t be controlled or changed. Leaders know that the best thing to do when it’s raining, is to … let it rain. So leaders get busy figuring out how to work in the rain or adjust their sails rather than cursing the weather and moving to Pity City.
Maybe you know a few people who live in Pity City? Once a workshop participant blurted out, “Live there! My husband’s the mayor.”
Pity City — or its suburb, Frown Town — can be a therapeutic place to visit. We all need to grieve or ventilate frustration when faced with major losses or setbacks. But we don’t want to live in this toxic place. Residency leads to deepening cynicism, despair, and inaction. It’s certainly not leadership territory. But it’s so easy to get on the Bitter Bus rolling on down Helpless Highway to Pity City because that’s where so many people are going.
Life isn’t fair. Lots of unfair and unjust crap happen to undeserving people. Whatever hits the fan won’t be evenly distributed. But it’s our choice whether to stand in it or not.
Leaders make it happen, followers watch it happen, and wallowers ask ‘Why does this always happen to me?’
Are you on the Better Bus or the Bitter Bus? Are you at the front of the line at the bus stop? Because if that’s where our organization is going, do we want to get a good seat?