4 things to consider before dismissing that suggestion or idea

elephant tied with stringIf it didn’t work then, will it work now?

Elephant syndrome is what I call it, the tendency to never forget. But I am not referring to a good memory. I am talking about a faulty forgetter. Like the elephant in the photo, we remain tied with string to obstacles we could readily overcome. That elephant was tied to an object when it was little but does not now understand what happened and what it could do to break out.

Consider this. You are the leader of a company on its way to fulfilling its purpose. One of your associates suggests an idea which you’ve already tried. You’ve tried it before and it did not work.

What would you do?

Most of us would reject it outright. We tend to have elephant syndrome. We remember those things that stymied us before, those tactics that failed, those efforts that fell short. And there well could be a good reason not to pursue them again.

On the other hand, it might be more effective to take another look at it.


  1. Because that was then and this is now. The circumstances, components, and dynamics that stopped you back then may not exist anymore. When the economy crashed here in the US in 2009, it was virtually impossible to get a business loan. Many simply gave up trying. But that was then. The economy has changed and lenders are loaning again. Just because it didn’t work then does not mean one should not try now when things are different. You could be tied with string. What you remember as being insurmountable then is well within your power to do now.
  2. It’s impossible to steer a ship when it is not moving. In organizations beset by inertia and stagnation, the principle effect you want is movement. You want people to think, to project, to create, to propose, to experiment, to act. When the ship moves it can be steered. Your role as a leader is not to stand at the helm looking splendid in your captain’s uniform. No, your role is to guide and steer the ship. Everyone else gets to make it move. Let them do your job while you do yours.
  3. Never stomp on someone’s idea outright. It may indeed be a bad idea but don’t take the mere suggestion of it personal. Those who work for you and with you can either be associates or lackeys. How you respond to their suggestions says a lot about what you think about them, about yourself, and about your authority. People who have an inflated opinion of themselves and their position tend to dismiss others. But remember what I’ve written earlier, that a leader’s circle of concern is greater than their circle of ability. They need, indeed you need others to extend your reach, multiply your effectiveness, and divide your work.
  4. If it is indeed an unworkable idea, the mere suggestion of it suggests a teachable moment. So teach already. Define your objections, analyze and verify their validity, explain your reasons, invite participation and feedback in the discussion and, this is important here, come to the same conclusion together. There’s more to getting things done than just doing things. You are also in the process of developing capable people as well.

There are, of course, some things that will never work. But you need to be fair about discerning what they are. There’s more at stake here than just exercising your authority.

Adaptability – two critical meanings for every leader

two-prong plugsThere I stood, 4 minutes power left on my laptop battery and I’m holding the plug ready to connect to an outlet.  The problem? My laptop is American and I was standing in my quarters in Uganda. There was power at hand, the ability to complete my projects within reach and I could not make it happen. I had a two prong plug with flat blades for a 110 volt system but Uganda is wired with large three prong plugs like those used in the UK supplying 220 volts.

I needed an adaptor and I needed to be able to be an adapter.

Of the many personal competencies evident in superlative leaders, the capacity of adaptability is one of the most useful and expedient.

There are, of course, two spellings for the word, each implying a slightly different application.

An adaptor is a device that enables one device to connect with or fit to another device. A leader can function in the same way as a facilitator. Often we must create the means whereby processes or people can work together. You can bring divergent personalities to focus, take the principles we’ve learned in one field and adapt them to our present circumstances. I spent most of my career working with the leaders and managers of non-profits, but I quickly learned that the principles of leadership and management are universal even if the practices whereby they are employed may vary depending on circumstances. People are, after all, people.

An adapter is one who is able to change according to the needs of the time and the environment in which s/he participates. So we as leaders not only enable systems, processes, and people to modify themselves, we must be able to do so as well. The management style studies pioneered by Douglas MacGregor opened the door to such thinking. Not only did he examine X leaders , authoritative and top/down,  and Y leaders , persuasive and cooperative, but he challenged that leaders and managers who are the most effective are able to adapt themselves and their style to any situation.

Power to complete the job are right at hand, requiring only an adaptability from us to make the connections and make it happen. That is leadership

Following through on that idea is the imperative that leaders cannot be martinets. No prima donna  that must have things just so and demands that everyone adjust to their demands could ever be named among the ranks of superlative leaders. While the leader may be a key individual, neither companies nor organizations exist to make them happy, fulfilled, or celebrated even though their work and successes may result in all three.

Further, superlative leaders know that the trait of adaptability demands they accept the fact that no strategy and no tactic regardless of how well it is thought out and planned ever survives contact with the real world without modification because they are always subject to unforeseen events and the independent will of others including the competition.

Lastly, and contradictorily, adaptability is not indecisiveness nor is it timidity. No, superlative leaders have a fixed objective. It is the means and systems to get there that demand adaptability … in them and in us.