Throughout my career I have had the pleasure and privilege to spend my days with a number of very passionate, driven, perceptive and intelligent people. As a Finance Director for twenty years I have usually been surrounded by a strong team, witnessing a variety of leaders and leadership styles ranging from the consumate professional, to the inspired entrepreneur and the meglamaniacal tyrant.
All of these leaders have had positive qualities such as clarity of vision, total commitment and business acumen, by the truck load. One of the key differences between them all was how they reacted to events, together with the consistency of the reaction. I have witnessed, to name but a few, messengers shot, good people humiliated, countless finger pointing and blaming. All these from leaders seemingly oblivious to the fact they were shredding part of their credibility and leadership status in the process. These were all intelligent people who forgot that leadership is not a quality you can award yourself, it is awarded by those you lead.
I remember learning at the feet of a young, but wise CEO by the name of Patrick Mullins. A yank with a huge personality, an innate ability to communicate and some of the best one liners, so good that I shamelessly plagiarise them to this day. One of the key things I remember about his leadership was his reaction to the “big stuff”. We were working in a company that had grown by 450% in 18 months and, as you would expect, it wasn’t all plain sailing. We hit several significant bumps in the road. I remember one board meeting when such a bump, and it was a biggy, was flagged up. My heart sank, “this is going to be uncomfortable to watch”, I thought. To my surprise and admiration Pat said “OK”, he took a minute to think and then said very calmly, “ok guys shit happens – what are we going to do about it”. No blame, no personal attacks, no wasted time finding a villain, just straight into solving the problem, which we did quickly and relatively painlessly.
This was a big lesson for me and I was reminded of it when the esteemed Vistage Chair, Ivan Goldberg did a session on E+R=O i.e. an Event plus our Reaction equals the Outcome and, in his usual way, encapsulated the whole story in a clear, concise and presentable way.
Within each organization there are events – events of an individual nature, events of a corporate nature. Each of us is faced with ‘events’ everyday. When an event presents itself, we react. We choose to react to an event in many different ways, we can even choose not to react. We can choose to react positively or negatively, we can choose to be supportive in our reaction, or we can choose to be critical. How we react to an event is the measure of our maturity and character. Taking the event and adding our reaction creates the Outcome.
Let’s be clear, you cannot control the outcome and you cannot control the event, but you can control your reaction which, when added to the event, will influence the outcome to a significant degree. In the example above, Pat decided that the most important thing was for the team to pull together and find a solution to a problem affecting our customer. The post mortem could wait, his reaction to the event ensured this happened.
This is further illustrated by the next chapter in the story. Time moved on and Pat enjoyed the outome resulting from the “shit happens” response. The rest of the team did too and the phrase was repeated by members of the Senior Management team until we hit another bump in the road, an event that was more controllable than the first and a direct result of a Director’s mistake. They relayed the event and Pat’s reaction was simple. He asked “how did this come to pass?” What he wasn’t expecting was to have his own words thrown back at him. Pat realised that his own words were being misused on this occassion avoid accountability and responsibility. “That is not shit happens” was his repsonse, “that’s you making a mistake and you need to 1) realise that, 2) put it right, 3) make sure it never happens again and 4) never, ever, say shit happens again”.
Thus it came to pass that one of the less edifying of Pat’s sayings died at that point, which was a great shame, but hey “shit happens”.
PS. Realising the Director had taken the rebuke to heart another pearl of wisdom was despatched by Mr Mullins, “pull up your pants and slide on the ice, we ain’t saving lives here.”