Every organization has some things that are untouchable. A time of sudden instability may be exactly the opportunity to take a closer look at whether those things are still serving your mission well. As Winston Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.
My last post raised three critical things leaders need to do to handle the harder decisions that are coming very soon. But now I want to suggest two unusual activities that may be valuable in preparing you for the longer term: Elephant Hunting and Shooting Sacred Cows.
(It may be unnecessary but I want to be clear that I am not in favour of trophy hunting and I mean no disrespect to those who do consider cows sacred. I’m just using the vernacular.)
Elephant Hunting: The elephant in the room in such a common trope it seems absurd; but that’s because it really is. The reality that mature, professional, decent people can have unspoken solidarity to never mention or deal with a looming issue doesn’t make sense. But it is all too often true.
Several years ago I took the picture on this post in the offices of Muskoka Woods. I absolutely loved coming across an eight foot high stuffed animal in their lobby. It perfectly captures the mindset that inhabits teams that will not risk rocking the boat by calling out what is known by all but never addressed. We carefully step around the obstacle, pretending it isn’t there, until it basically becomes invisible even as it remains in the way.
In this time when so much is uncertain and we are continually adapting to reality we didn’t anticipate it may be just the chance to point at the elephant and say “Let’s do something about this!”
Of course there is a chance it will backfire, but leaders with integrity are more likely to appreciate someone having the nerve, or accumulated frustration, to state the obvious. At a time when things are so difficult we need to get these long overdue issues out of the way. All it takes is one moment of boldness to expose the elephant. What happens next will reveal a great deal about the culture of your organization.
Shooting Sacred Cows: While we actively avoid acknowledging elephants, we sometimes spend way too much time, energy, and resource on sacred cows. These are the things (programs, facilities, traditions, people, etc.) that have been a part of what we do for so long that we can’t imagine getting on without them, even if we suspect or know they are no longer effective.
You can usually recognize a sacred cow by the way they are treasured in unassailable esteem and never held up to scrutiny.
Times of transition, whether its new leaders coming on board, relocation, financial turmoil, or something like a pandemic, often expose the way these things have become undeservingly unquestioned. The new person or situation may cause us to ask, “Is this really helping us to accomplish our purpose?”
As so many organizations try to make changes to adapt to the financial difficulties ahead and the impossibility of business as usual it is no longer an option for wise leaders to protect what no longer serves. It is time to put the nonproductive cows out to pasture, if not throw them on the barbecue. As with elephants, it takes one person with the courage to ask the direct question to free up the group for needed consideration.
There are no guarantees in leadership. That is more clear than ever these days. Being the one who points out the elephant or challenges the value of the cow may be a career limiting move. Some leaders and organizations aren’t willing or able to even consider that these things are actually problems that drag against the good you are trying to do. That sucks, but it is occasionally the case.
But I have a strong suspicion that those leaders who step into that risk and respectfully yet directly challenge the status quo are the ones who will help their organizations have the greatest chance of emerging from COVID-19 intact and better positioned to increase their impact.
Are you one of those leaders?
Catalyst can help you engage in dealing with obstructive elephants and outdated cows.
Contact us so we can take them on together.