No giraffes at the traffic light

In his delightful little book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli tells an interesting story. It’s a story that provides a fascinating insight into leadership behaviour. And could hold a lesson for all of us. 

The story goes that every morning in a little town, a man in a yellow shirt with a red hat would come to a busy traffic junction. Just before nine o’clock, he would wave his hat around wildly. And after ten minutes of frantic waving, he would disappear. One day, a policeman went up to him and asked: “What are you doing here?”

“I am keeping the giraffes away!” said the man.  

“But there aren’t any giraffes here,” said the cop.

“See, I am doing such a good job!” said the man. The story might bring a smile to your face. And if you think about it, you might even be able to relate it to what we see our leaders doing! Leaders like to believe they are in control and are making things happen. Leaders are quick to attribute outcomes to their own actions – even when there may be no real correlation. Seen that happening? Yes? Thought as much. Why does that happen? How can leaders avoid this trap? Here are four simple tips to ponder:

1. Get over the illusion of control.

Accept that you don’t control everything. Not everything that happens around you happens because of you. No one really needs you to prove that as a leader you are in control of everything. You don’t have to control everything. It’s OK, it really is.

2. Change.

Break away from tradition. You may have been doing things a certain way for many years – but if it doesn’t make sense today – stop doing it. ‘We have always done it this way’ is not enough reason to continue doing it that way forever. Be willing to be challenged. Stop waving your favourite red hat if there’s no evidence to warrant it now.

3. Don’t look for credit.

Let go of the apparent need to take credit. You don’t need to be able to link every success to your own effort. The sales team doing well does not have to be entirely because of what you said to them at the conference in Pattaya last year. Or last week. That intern who left you ten years ago and is now a CEO elsewhere — maybe it’s because he is really good and not because of what you taught him while he was working with you for a year. It’s not always about you.

4. You don’t have to have a reasonfor everything.

Stop searching for an associated reason for everything that happens. Accept that sometimes, things just happen. The need to attribute a cause often compels leaders to look for tenuous connections between their own actions of the past – and the outcomes they are seeing. And once they find a link – however phoney – they shut out the evidence and lose sight of the real reason why something’s happening – or not happening.

As leaders we are all guilty of occasionally spending, nay wasting, company resources waving the red hat and believing that’s what’s keeping the giraffes away.

Next time you see a leader waving his red hat, you should do something too. Wave a red flag! Stop it. g

Reprinted with permission from BW I BUSINESSWORLD, India

Iyer is an author, speaker and  leadership coach and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

No giraffes at the traffic light
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