The Danger of Experience

robotSometimes I wish it was still the 1960’s. It was the days of the television show Lost in Space. In this cinematic gem, there was a robot who looked after a young boy named Will. In only one episode, the robot warned Will of impending danger by saying, “Danger, Will Robinson!” The saying caught on and reached catchphrase status uttered to warn someone when they are about to make a mistake or are overlooking something.

As leaders, we need that robot’s warning. Here’s what I mean.

As we grow in our leadership skills, confidence rises. We reach a point where we have experienced a variety of difficult situations. We celebrate the successes while grieving the losses. We become comfortable in our leadership skin. We begin to think we have this leadership thing mastered. That is the point where experience can be dangerous.  At this place, stagnation can set in. We can analyze situations and think to ourselves too quickly, “I know what to do here. This is like the time I…”(insert leadership problem and canned solution here). Cue the robot.

Every organization wants a leader wise enough to handle situations that come up. That’s where the rub comes.

Reality says there are going to be situations that come up that even the most experienced leader has not seen before. Then what? A classic example is how United States leaders responded after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. No one had ever seen anything quite like this before. There was no frame of reference. But soon we began to see true leaders step to the forefront to get our nation back on track.

know the answer

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Experience and wisdom are not the same things. I have known leaders who have one-year experience, twenty times. They have a hammer and every problem they encounter looks like a nail.

Other leaders I know have little experience but are blessed with “wisdom beyond their years.” That’s the kind of leader we want to lead our organization. We want leaders who can figure it out when they haven’t seen the situation before.

That’s the kind of leader we want to be. Yes, experience matters but it becomes dangerous when we rely on it too much to the exclusion of wisdom. Wisdom wins every time.

I like what Ed Catmull of Pixar says in Creativity, Inc.: “Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.” If we find ourselves not thinking differently about the problems we encounter, if every problem is a nail, then perhaps we’re not engaging enough in the problem but relying too much on our experience to save us.

Great leaders engage wisdom to help them solve problems and let their experience speak for itself.

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How Leaders are Like Video Game Designers

Image courtesy of Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It was a case of mistaken identity.

I walked into my local Papa John’s to pick up a carryout pizza. I’m too cheap to pay for delivery and tip the driver. My order was delivered to the counter quickly and I paid. As the well-intentioned young man behind the counter was handing me the receipt he said, “Thank you for your service.” I smiled and nodded, not knowing what he meant. It wasn’t until I got to the car that it dawned on me. He mistook the Dallas Cowboys star logo on my coat sleeve for a United States Air Force star. I live near a United States Air Force base so it is not uncommon to see our service men and women around town. Easy mistake.

I have to admit I felt guilty for getting praise I didn’t earn or deserve. I don’t want to take anything away from the brave men and women who volunteer to serve our country.

I was raised to believe that you strive to do your best because it is the right thing to do. Give your best effort as a matter of pride not as a matter of praise. Applause is something you earn for being exceptional.

Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I remember going through some old boxes with my father. Years earlier, he served in the United States Marines Corps and the box contained mementos of his military days. He did his basic training at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Several shiny items in the box caught my eye immediately. They were marksmanship qualification badges that he earned while enlisted. He reached the highest rank of expert and was rewarded for his skills.  I don’t recall seeing a medal just for showing up.

As leaders, we have some people on our teams, who think they deserve a medal just for showing up. They have been praised for doing the minimum or taught to believe everyone should get a ribbon. These low expectations work against us.

We fail as leaders when we allow low expectations to continue unchecked.

The art of leadership means finding the delicate balance between high and low expectations for our organization. If our expectations are too low, we can unwittingly impede their progress and allow them to be lazy. Our organization will suffer from mediocrity and our team members will quickly disengage from meaningful contribution.

On the other hand, if our expectations are unrealistically high, our organization will have little to celebrate and team members are in danger of becoming exhausted and discouraged also resulting in disengaged team members.

When our expectations are just right, we see a steady progression of growth in both the organization and the individual team members.

We have that in common with video game designers.  A game designer knows that if you make a game too easy, people are going to get bored and not play. If you make it too hard, people won’t continue to play because they don’t see progress. The key is making each level challenging enough to entice players to stay engaged so they can progress to the next level.

So how do we walk find this fine line?

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here are a couple ideas:

  • Build relationships with people on your team, so you know what motivates them.
  • Set a baseline of minimum expectations and communicate them regularly.
  • Praise progress rather than low performance.
  • Reward people when they do an excellent job.
  • Find ways to help people step up.

People will rise to the level of our expectations.

What expectations do you have for your team members? Which team members are doing well and which ones are demonstrating an attitude of entitlement for just showing up? How long can you afford to allow low expectations to impede the progress of the team?

I would love to hear your thoughts on how you keep challenging your teams.