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Oxygen

July 10, 2019

Thin Air:

I believe that most of us know that as we leave the surface of the earth and travel toward space, the air gets thinner. That’s why our high-flying modern planes have pressurized cabins. We don’t have to fly to experience the air thinning out with height. Visiting a mountain cabin, or Denver, CO, can give you the same experience and effects from the high altitude.

Your Own Mask First

Those of us who have flown recently knows about the admonishment the safety attendants make regarding the loss of cabin pressure. When traveling with small children, we are advised to put our own oxygen mask on first, and then assist the children with their oxygen masks.

The purpose is to make sure we do not pass out or become ineffective due to a lack of oxygen and thus be incapable of helping others. The same is true in our lives as leaders. Let me explain.

Common Sense

It’s impossible to provide anyone with a formula for leadership. We do know that a good leader can adapt well to unpredictable situations. They apply past experience to new circumstances. That sounds to me like a good definition of common sense. The relationship to the oxygen discussion is provided by John Lewis Gaddis in his recent book On Grand Strategy.

“Why, then, did Napoleon forget what most fools remember? Perhaps because common sense is indeed like oxygen: the higher you go, the thinner it gets.”

Common sense is like the oxygen mask for leaders. The higher we climb up the leadership ladder, the more we must depend on common sense to keep us thinking clearly and effectively.

MBWA

The better leaders in organizations I worked in had a habit of getting out of their offices and talking to the workers on the front lines. We called it Management By Walking Around (MBWA). They kept in touch with what was actually happening. They depended on the folks doing the work to tell them what was needed, what was wrong, and what was going right in their part of the operation.

My analysis of what was happening is that the leaders were validating what they thought they saw in the reports that they were reading. Too often, leaders will simply draw a conclusion about the trends in data without digging in to find out the reality those numbers represent. They forget that “the map isn’t the territory.”

Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Common Sense

Gaddis points out that the best strategists in history seemed to combine the attributes of Foxes and Hedgehogs with a great deal of common sense. That means that the leader/strategist has an understanding of the big picture and how things relate (fox) with a strong drive toward a vision or purpose (hedgehog). Common sense comes in when it comes time to negotiate the means to achieve that vision.

The leader gets things done through other people, not by his or her own self. Therefore, keeping the vision alive and in front of everyone is critical to moving the organization forward as one entity to achieve the required end result.

Since most leaders are made—some may be natural born leaders, I believe most learn the skill—then learning to embody the capabilities of the fox and hedgehog will serve the leader well. If combined with an intuitive feeling of how to achieve the vision through people, the leader will be highly effective. Where are you on this leadership attribute scale? Have you worked for a highly effective leader? Do you know how they attained their skill set? How can you hone your personal leadership skills? How will you mentor the up-and-coming leaders in your direct reports?

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