Resisting the Urge to Fix Things

Some young leaders feel that the ability to make quick decisions and to avert crises of any magnitude is what sets them apart as qualified management material. Ask any member of the team and see whether decisiveness does not come forth as a characteristic of a leader. Even Mayer and Salovey (1997) mention that decision-making ability is bolstered by emotional intelligence. However, in mentoring and training, sometimes a decision is not required on the spot, as it is in a truly emergent situation. Time, when available, can be used to evaluate potential courses of action. Most situations are not emergencies, argues Badaracco, and this paves the way for experiential opportunities.

The ability to distinguish between emergencies and teaching opportunities determines whether a leader will hasten to fix things that do not need to be fixed or will allow the staff working with him to explore solutions (to discover for themselves that, alas, a solution is needed). This is by no means easy. Imagine that you are a mother watching your child bake a cake for the first time. The child adds flour, eggs, and sugar, all in the wrong order; some of the batter even escapes the bowl boundaries. Will this truly affect the cake baking? Only time and experience will tell. It is knowing when this time and experience is available that is key. Aside from adding motor oil in lieu of molasses, there are few fatal mistakes in mixing a cake; however, there are countless opportunities to improve. Even leaving out an ingredient leads to better judgment next time, since the cake will likely be flat, dry, crisp, gooey, or otherwise less than perfect.

More than likely, there are few mothers who would actually allow their children even this kind of small failure, unless they were out to prove a major point. By nature, we are not like that at all. We do not like to stand by and intentionally watch people goof up, when we have the answer right there in our back pocket. We especially shudder at letting those in our charge make the same mistakes we made: a feeling nags at us that our job as leaders (parents, if you will) is to keep consequences from happening to those who are not as experienced. If the child forgets eggs, why in the world would the mom not remind the child to put in eggs? Does it not seem cruel to stand by and watch the child make a mistake?

That is where we reach the dividing line between opportunities for intervention and opportunities for learning. Let us pretend that we are a dad this time, watching a young son ride a bicycle for the first time. There are so many things we could tell that kid about what not to do on a bike: do not ride standing up, with no hands, without a helmet, or out in the center of traffic. Indeed we should tell the child these things; they are basic principles of safety, which uninformed children (and even some informed ones) are bound to attempt to violate.

To go even further, we could try to prevent accidents altogether by attaching permanent training wheels, running alongside the child with our hands on the handlebars forever, and only allowing the child to ride on the grass and never on the pavement so as to avoid bleeding in the event that our fundamental efforts to stabilize the bicycle failed. However, most readers know the end of the story: training wheels have to come off, parents cannot forever trot alongside, and backyards do not make very good cycling tracks. Thus, there remain lessons to be learned, and most kids who grew up with bicycles learned them sooner or later. The lessons are about balance, speed, distance, and mechanics, those irresistible laws of physics we start learning from the time we take our first steps. There is no way to ingrain these lessons in a child's mind other than by experience. Do not ride too fast? Absolutely critical to teach ahead of time. However, the real lesson that force equals mass times acceleration awaits, and is well known by the time most kids are ten or twelve years old.

Badaracco (2002) says that the majority of situations do not require heroic, on-the-spot decision making but rather happen in a time frame that allows learning. In these more relaxed situations, we can encourage leaders to provide advice when an ingredient is clearly missing but let go of the handlebars. A teaching leader knows how to walk this fine line.

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Parenting Teens Special Report

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