When Things Break Down, How Do You Respond?



Anyone can steer the ship when the seas are calm.

Publius Syrus, Roman Author, 1st Century BC

How do you show up when things go wrong?

Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote:

Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is your power to choose.  In that choice lies your freedom.

That space and that choice  shouts to the world the type of leader that you are.

This weekend, my 74 year old father came to visit.  On Friday night, he broke the handle off of a large mug. (It’s the one in the picture.)

On Saturday morning, as my 11 year old son Alexander and I were sitting at the kitchen table, my Dad came into the kitchen.  He nervously said,

I’m so sorry.  I broke a mug last night.  I dropped it on the counter and the handle broke into three pieces.

Before I could even say anything, Alexander jumped up toward his Grandpa. He piped up,

That’s OK, Pop-Pop!  Stuff like that happens all the time.  It’s no big deal.  Don’t worry about it.I was amazed.  Alexander’s tone of voice was warm and caring.  His empathy for his grandfather was incredible.  He continued,

We can try to glue it back together with some Crazy Glue.  If it works, that’s great, and if not, we’ve got plenty of other mugs.

I could see my father’s whole body relax from this reassurance.Alexander led with empathy.  Before any other response, he instinctively went to create a strong human to human connection.

This act of creating psychological safety is the most important attribute leaders can demonstrate to create successful teams.  It’s the secret adhesive that creates strong bonds of trust.

To display empathy for someone else seems like it should be so effortless and natural. Unfortunately, it’s not.  Empathy is created through cultural conditioning and repetition. It’s a muscle that gets stronger (or weaker) with practice over time.Compare Alexander’s response to that of my tax attorney.  Let’s call him Steve.

Yesterday, I received a large package from Steve’s office.  It was my 2015 completed tax forms, that I need to sign and mail in before the deadline here in the US by April 18.

On reviewing the paperwork, I noticed a major omission on their work:  there was no reference to what contribution I could make to a self-employment program (SEP) retirement account.   Being able to save for retirement is one of the biggest reasons I hired a tax professional in the first place–for them to figure out what I can legally save each year.I called Steve this morning to bring up my issue.

As I explained the situation, I asked Steve what could have happened that his team had missed this rather important point.

He blithely replied, “I don’t know.”    Silence.   That was it.From Steve’s words and tone of voice, I received:

  • No empathy.

  • No apology.

  • No ownership.

  • Poor leadership.

Steve is a mid-career professional with a law degree.

My son’s finishing up the 5th grade.

Sometimes leadership isn’t about what you know. It boils down to who you are.If anyone can steer the ship when the seas are calm, then it’s when the waves get rough that leadership is truly tested.

What techniques do you employ when the “waves get rough”?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

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