Friday, October 30, 2009

Setting Sail

I love this quote from John Shedd:

A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
It is always a temptation to stay in the safe zone, the place where you are comfortable. But that is not what makes organizations great, or frankly, even of value. A ship that refuses to leave the harbor is a ship that is worthless, except maybe to the crew that is afraid to sail; and that never lasts.

To continue the analogy, we like captains who can describe the adventures found on the sea, discovering new lands, and asking people to climb aboard for a trip that has risks but the journey is worth it. Perhaps you are one of those captains longing to lead people in a direction rather than sitting still collecting barnacles. Let me describe what you will inevitably find once you really begin to lead:

A "middler." What is a "middler"? Someone who stands on the shore doing all he or she can to hold the ropes so that boat doesn't go anywhere, all because they don't want to get wet.

I love how Edwin H. Friedman describes "middlers" in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:
In any type of of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encourage and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consesus, a "middler," someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his "disability" seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas - one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits.
The best part of his description? Often the "middlers" are nice and charming.

If you are going to be a leader, or a captain setting sail out of the harbor of status quo, then expect people to be hanging on to the ropes. Friedman's advice, which we'll explore more later, is to make sure that you are concentrating on your own integrity rather than thinking of the "middlers" as a problem to solve.

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