Timothy Johnson Photo in Header

Nothing to Fear? Let's Find Something!

“If the instructions are not clear, if the orders are not obeyed, it is the fault of the general. But if the instructions are clear and the soldiers still do not obey, it is the fault of their officers.” – Sun Tzu

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

"Whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures." - W. Edwards Deming

"We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones." - Stephen King

Sun_tzu_concubine I've come to the conclusion that fear is underrated. I'm not talking horror (a la Stephen King), nor unbridled neuroses (as a project manager, I have that one mastered, thank you very much). I'm talking good old run-of-the-mill, healthy-for-you FEAR.

I was reading the story of Sun Tzu and the King's concubines.  For those not familiar with it, Sun Tzu was a kind of consulting legend. Instead of Six Sigma, he specialized in military strategy... a sort of Machiavelli for the B.C. era. King Ho Lu was considering hiring Sun Tzu, so he asked for a demonstration (evidently, round table interviews hadn't been invented yet). Sun Tzu organized the king's 300 concubines into two battalions (allow the king's two favorites to be the heads), armed them, and gave them a clear, direct order. Giggling. He tried again. More giggling.

Here's where things get interesting. He called in the executioner and beheaded the two favorite concubines. Sun Tzu himself might have been on the chopping block had it not been for what he did next. He quickly promoted two more concubines and gave them orders. Amazingly, compliance.

A while back, I was on a contract with a client. There were some project managers who weren't cutting it, and the client manager did what needed to be done: promptly fired the project managers (be they contract or employee... didn't matter). However, there were business analysts who were also misbehaving who were allowed to continue the behavior. Why? There was no fear of reprisal. Nobody wanted to behead a concubine. Those in the project office got the message loud and clear: do your job and nobody gets hurt. In the business analyst office, that message rarely got around.

I've been curious why we don't behead more concubines. Mind you, I'm not talking about the toxic bosses who go around doing nothing BUT verbal decapitations all day. My focus here is on otherwise effective leaders who let bad behavior abound. I think the problem here is how we perceive fear. Roosevelt was right: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. The question remains, though: isn't it just a little OK to maintain a healthy respect for being afraid? Have we become so desensitized to fear that we just don't know how to feel it any more?

If you are in a role of leading people out there among my readers, what is preventing you from beheading a concubine? Is it a desire to be liked? Is it a need for honesty (as in the Deming quote, above)? I think even Deming would have agreed that well-directed fear is a good thing. Fear of the competition. Fear of complacency. Fear of irreversible failure. Fear of irrelevance. Fear of under-performing co-workers. Fear of non-value. Those are all good fears to have. They are good fears to address head on.

So, the next time you deal with a giggling lack of response in the face of clear directives, are you prepared to behead a concubine? It might make all the difference in seizing your accomplishment.

Prescribed for Basic Discomfort

Nail_bed With the exception of Phineas and Ferb, I've grown tired of the crap that passes for television on the Disney Channel.  As a parent, I want my kids growing up with an appreciation for great writing and acting, where the adults don't look stupid, where a great plot and amusing characters can carry themselves. That's why I'm grateful for Hulu. My girls are now being introduced to The Addams' Family (the mid-1960's version starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones).

For those who grew up under a rock and unfamiliar with the Addams' family, go watch a few episodes and then come back and read the rest of this post. For the rest of you, wasn't that show a riot? The Addams clan was amusingly macabre while being extremely gracious to their visitors. They had no idea their norms made other people extremely uncomfortable.

Last weekend, I started teaching a class in Creativity at Drake. I gave my students the standard line: "I won't knock you out of your comfort zone; I'll drop-kick you." Discomfort is key for creativity. When you're uncomfortable, your mind starts racing. I see it in the face of students coming up with an excuse. I see it in project resources who failed to meet a deadline. It's evident in the faces of the guests of the Addams family as they try to extricate themselves from the spooky mansion.

My good friend, Kevin Eikenberry, had a great post about discomfort a couple of weeks ago. Among his five reasons was this gem:

Discomfort promotes creativity. Creativity is borne of necessity. People create new things, ideas, concepts and products when they have a problem – or in some way are outside their comfort zone. Often creativity is tapped to help regain comfort, which is great. The point is that when you feel or notice some discomfort or lack of satisfaction with your situation, you will likely be driven to innovate and be creative to find a remedy. If you want to be more creative, look for your discomfort.

Well said, Kevin. Now, my question is why we don't actively seek discomfort more? I'm amused by people who have a status quo fetish. They are petrified of discomfort. How can we EFFECTIVELY make others uncomfortable? Gomez and Morticia have some of the answers:

  • Assume discomfort is the norm: The Addams crew sees nothing wrong with housing a lion and an octopus, let alone a man-eating plant and an uncle who powers light bulbs with his mouth. When you go against the flow of normal on a daily basis, it takes a lot more to make you uncomfortable.
  • Be gracious in the midst of discomfort: Watching Gomez and Morticia, they make all their guests welcome and go out of their way with generosity. If you're going to make others uncomfortable, do it with a smile and an open hand.
  • Be balanced: the Addamses pursue multiple interests; they don't rely on just one technique to make others uncomfortable. Wreck a toy train or two. Learn the harpsichord. Try fencing. Just doing the same thing over and over won't make anyone uncomfortable; it will probably just make them mad.
  • It's temporary: each episode lasts 22 minutes. Yeah, television is not an accurate reflection of reality. However, discomfort doesn't have to last long either. If we embrace it, discomfort can be short-lived as well.

Just remember: discomfort doesn't have to be a bad thing. It is absolutely essential to those who really want to seize the accomplishment, as you won't carpe factum without it. So when discomfort knocks on your door, just open it and in your best Lurch voice, ask, "You rang?"

Like What You're Reading? Buy A Book

subscribe to feed

  • Click the button for the free RSS feed. (What is RSS?)

    Or get the feed in your email. Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

Follow Me!

Search Carpe Factum

  • Google

    carpe factum
Powered by TypePad