Leadership lessons are abundant; they’re everywhere. My latest one came from my bathroom sink.
It started innocently enough. The chrome p-trap (the curvy part under the sink) had developed a leak created by corrosion after 33 years of use (the age of the house). OK; not a problem. I’ve changed several of those over the years, installed or changed several garbage disposers in kitchen sinks, etc. So I figured no big deal.
After a trip to Lowe’s to buy a new PVC trap, I went about the replacement task. The new trap was not a perfect fit. So, I gave it a little nudge to “massage” it into place. SNAP. The chrome downpipe (also 33 years old) broke off just beneath the sink drain. Uh oh. The size of the job just tripled.
No problem. I’ll just loosen the brass nut holding the drain in the sink, and replace the drain, the downpipe, the tailpipe into the wall, and the trap.
It wouldn’t budge.
OK, still no problem. It’s brass, so I’ll hacksaw the nut off easily (my wife said later she should have stopped me when she saw the hacksaw go by).
So I sawed off the brass nut, only to then discover that the nipple for the sink drain closer prevented the drain from coming out of the sink. And I’d also forgotten that the drain consists of two parts which I must unscrew before I can remove the drain anyway.
At that point, several hours into what should have been a 10-minute job, I threw in the towel and agreed with my better half to call the plumber. The next day it took him 10 minutes to fix my mess and to replace everything under the sink with brand new PVC parts.
Why do I do that? Why did I keep trying to solve this small problem, only making it worse with everything I tried, long after I should have thrown in the towel? And what can we learn from this kind of episode about our leadership?
Several things. But maybe they all boil down to this, whether we’re talking DIY plumbing or leadership:
You gotta know when to call in the pros
I’ve certainly seen it hundreds of times in my career. An organizational leader calls me or comes into my office wearing a worried look. They tell me a tale of woe about a leadership problem that has developed, often over a long period of time, and they don’t know what to do about it.
Maybe they tried a few DIY fixes, and it didn’t get fixed; maybe it even got worse. Perhaps the repercussion ripples have grown even wider. Maybe (unbeknown to the leader) the question of possible legal liability has crept into the picture. Possibly other employees have noticed this leadership problem and are wondering why it hasn’t been fixed. Or they’re beginning to wonder about the leader. Maybe they’re beginning to wonder about the organization that would tolerate such leadership…..
I have one client who uses me like an organizational fire extinguisher. Instead of heeding my advice about investing in their leaders’ development consistently over time, they’re content to let them learn “on-the-job”. Then they call me when the resulting messes have gotten big, visible to all, and expensive to clean up.
Often I ask the same question (the obvious other question about leadership development aside): why didn’t you come to me with this sooner, when it was still a small problem? Why let it mushroom, remain unsolved, and suffer all the worry in the meantime? Chances are I’ve solved a problem like it several dozen times previously. So why would you try to go it alone?
Probably for the same reasons I “mushroomed” my bathroom sink repair. “I thought I could handle it”. “I’ve done this before”. “I’ve been a leader (DIYer) for a long time”. Or, even deeper, “I’d be admitting a failure”.
Maybe we’ve all gotta know when to call in the pros.
That’s why we have HR staff or leadership consultants. They (we) are the organizational “plumbers” we all need to turn to sometimes. And my experience has been, like with my sink, that the most often made error by leaders in solving problems is not calling in the organizational pros soon enough.
So what’s my personal leadership lesson? That I need to heed my own advice when it comes to DIY fixes. I need to swallow my pride, and recognize when I’m in over my head. Just like I tell my organizational leadership clients to do. And I need to keep making that point with them, as well as reminding myself.