Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

Leadership Lessons from the County Fair

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220px-Baton_long“You need to get out of the office for a while, you’re stressed out,” my wife’s voice sounded with empathy and emphasis. I was in the middle of conflict. The organization I led was growing and I keenly felt new performance pressures on my own skills, disappointments from those around me, and open challenges to my leadership role (some people wanted me gone).

I agreed to meet my family at the fair and drove my body there at the appointed time. My mind however was still engaged in determining my next strategic and tactical moves. Neither my wife’s welcoming kiss nor the smell of deep-fried fair food was strong enough to disengage my thoughts. I wandered around the fair like zombie-dad – physically there but mentally unreachable by my children and my wife.

We turned a corner in time to see a Karate demonstration about to begin. Violence – now that sounded interesting to me at that point. The narrator explained he would play the part of a victim while his partner acted as an assailant. The assailant had a big pole which he maneuvered with the confidence of a tested warrior.  I felt a bit sorry for the narrator and awaited his ultimate demise – with a certain gleefulness. I wanted someone else to hurt like I was hurting.

In the blink of an eye the attack was over. I stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the assailant lay spread eagle on the ground with the victim standing over him. The victim stood with a foot on the assailant’ throat and the assailant’s weapon in his hand. I wasn’t sure what I had just saw.

The victim helped the assailant up and still narrating said, “Now, let’s slow things down so you can see what just happened.”

“Geese,” I thought, “this ought to be awesome.”

The players reset, the assailant with the pole and the victim with nothing but his hands. “Begin the attack,” the victim narrated.

“Notice how the assailant is swinging the pole at me,” the victim began. “The natural tendency is to move away from the pole – but the power of the swing is at the end of the pole. Moving away can result in a serious injury or death.  I move into the assailant.” He paused just a moment to let that fact sink in and the action continued.

“As I move toward the assailant I turn with his momentum,” the victim continued. “The natural tendency here is to attempt to overpower the assailant but in most cases the assailant has the advantage of momentum which means I do not have the leverage I need to mount a counter force. I intend to move with his momentum to lower the potential for injury.”

The victim had turned with the assailant’s momentum and continued, “Now I am in a place to act as a fulcrum. The assailant has committed his energy to swinging the pole and all I have to do is use his momentum against him,” the victim had not knocked the assailant off-balance and was taking away his pole as he fell to the ground.

Boom, victim became the victor!  I ruminated on the stages of the attack and the response of the victim as I compared it to my own situation.

In what seemed an eternal moment of pause, I felt as though God’s own voice was reaffirming the leadership lesson I had just saw.

Move toward the assailant.  I had tried to avoid the controversy swirling around the changes I had made in the organization. It seemed the harder I tried to extricate myself the deeper I fell into critical assessments.  I smarted under the power of my assailant’s swing as I tried to escape. I did not understand their motive or their concerns and had made the mistake of thinking I could avoid having to spend the time to know them.

Do not attempt to overpower their momentum. I had failed here as well as I was marshaling my resources for a display of power – if my critics wanted conflict I would give them a mega-dose. Going down fighting seemed like the only alternative I had – however, being new meant that I was playing the role of the martyr. It was foolish to attempt a head to head contest against people who had been in the organization longer. I thought, “What are my critics saying that I can agree with and thereby join not resist the momentum of their attack?”  I knew I had to understand their core concerns and discern their motive.

Use their momentum to knock them off-balance and remove their weapon. I wondered what the tipping point would be as I got to know my opposition. How could I disarm them and help us both win? Or, how could I defang them in such a way that I survived their push to oust me?

The next several weeks saw a significant change in my demeanor and my activities. I acted much less like a zombie-dad and more like a human engaged in life and relationship. I moved in close to those people who opposed the changes that I made in the organization.  I listened to their concerns. I spent time working to understand their motivations and needs. I did not pull back from the conflict and in so doing I was not hurt to the degree I would have been. Surprisingly to me, the one person driving the tumult exposed in his own toxic behavior. When I was finally able to define and address the differences in perspective this man’s behavior called to question his credibility and ability as a leader. Ultimately I had to let the tumultuous person go – I fired him. People grieved the lack of reconciliation between us but understood that I had finally done everything I could to turn the situation around.

The organization became healthier and our people more engaged. They realized that I would not hide from conflict nor would I arrogantly insist that I had all the right answers.  I have never been as happy to attend a county fair as I was that year. The lesson I learned at the fair have stayed with me all this time.

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

One thought on “Leadership Lessons from the County Fair

  1. I love that story. Thanks for writing it out. I still remember it from our class in DR. I like the way your teaching comes to life through your stories.

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