One of my favourite movies is Beautiful People . It’s an amazing movie on the wildlife of Africa. It captures how animals, in so many ways, are so much like us. One of the insightful scenes is the secret behind how some of the tribesman catch monkeys. They put a small fruit in a small hole at the foot of a tree. Soon a monkey comes along, puts its hand into the hole and grabs hold of the fruit. But it soon discovers, that with its hand around the fruit, it is now too big to draw out of the hole. It is now trapped. If only it would let go of the fruit, it could immediately free itself and run away. Instead, it chooses to hold on and soon the tribesman comes along and catches the helpless monkey. The story captures a parallel in human and leadership behaviour.
As we make the journey from business students to business leaders, one of the most important qualities we will need is perseverance. The ability to stick it out. In our leadership sessions with children and young people, we call this grit —to keep at something even when it’s difficult and taking a toll. This quality often makes the difference between the achievers and the also-rans.
Angela Duckworth’s research at the University of Pennsylvania showed that children usually tended to be happier and healthier if they demonstrated grit. “The capacity to continue trying despite repeated setbacks was associated with a more optimistic outlook on life in 31 per cent of people studied, and with greater life satisfaction in 42 per cent of them.” But great leaders will also tell you about the seemingly contradictory quality which is the ability to let go. The leader has to develop the skill of knowing when to hang on and when to let go. Let’s look at some examples.
A new business, product, project
These need guts to launch and even more guts to keep going. What is required is the leader’s resolve to persevere as the initial days of the business or project throw up problems and seemingly insurmountable challenges. Most successful entrepreneurs and leaders will tell us how their grit through the initial dark days, eventually led them to success. But the leader needs to also listen for signals that tell her that this could be a dead end, for signals that could tell her that maybe she is years ahead of the market, that what she perceives as a need is not yet a want or a market.
Wrigley’s started off selling soap and baking powder with the chewing gum as the giveaway. If William Wrigley had persevered in ramming through his soap and baking powder products, he wouldn’t have had the enormously successful chewing gum company that Wrigley’s eventually became. Sony’s first product was an electric rice cooker. Had they persisted in that and not let go, the Sony Walkman success story would have never emerged. Sony would have never become the gaming and entertainment giant without learning to let go.
A leader must look at the context, evaluate the results, weigh facts over emotion and then make a considered choice whether a business or idea or project has to be backed or let go off. She must be open to feedback, she must learn to listen, she must learn to detach and she must learn to be objective. This will help her make the right choice. Holding on and showing perseverance, when you should actually let go, can lead the team and the company to ruin.
This is one area where perceived loyalty to a teammate can actually be counterproductive. The leader wants to persevere with a non-performer, or with someone whose destructive attitude and habits are corrosive for the team. She thinks he will improve. She thinks he will change for the better. So, she perseveres with him. In the meantime, the team and the organisation pay a heavy price.
Instead she should ask herself brutal questions: Has he shown any record of taking feedback on board? Has he shown a willingness and capacity to change? What is the impact of his behaviour on the team, on results? Often a leader thinks she is demonstrating loyalty and perseverance, when really what she is doing is being lazy or afraid of confronting a difficult choice. She is postponing dealing with a problem hoping it will go away. It will only get worse. Grit here brings everyone to grief.
Try undoing a knot and you will realise that sometimes you push, sometimes you pull. Sometimes you yank in one direction, sometimes you yank in the opposite direction. Problem solving often needs a similar approach. We sometimes are tempted to keep at a problem and yet a solution eludes us. We sink more time and energy and resources. But often stepping back, will give us a new perspective. Perhaps we will then realise we’re solving for the wrong problem. Sometimes we could realise we are the wrong people to solve the issue. Sometimes it could be a question of timing or tools or technique. Letting go helps us see this. Letting go gives us the space to zoom out and view the bigger picture.
I remember a time when I was leading an outsourcing business and one of the most disastrous errors that could happen, threatened to destroy our credibility. Payslips — that most confidential and private of information — had been swapped. The CEO’s payslip by mistake had been put in an envelope addressed to a mid-level employee. We tried various kinds of ways to solve the problem to ensure the mistake never happened again. Quality checks, more quality checks, random quality checks. Use a different person to double check and match the payslip inside the envelope with the address label printed on the outside. We shortened the length of time that the folk who were inserting the payslips in the envelopes were working, so that fatigue would not create the error.
Finally, a step back and a letting go of the problem, created the space for a new look at the issue. The solution was startling in its simplicity — use window envelopes so that the address in the payslip showed through. The problem was eliminated. But a solution would not have emerged, if we had just kept persevering with the quality checking approach. We had to let go of the problem and our old problem-solving approach for a while, and a real permanent and innovative solution then emerged.
Insanity has often been defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Leaders must keep this in mind as they balance this contradiction — know when to keep going and know when to let go.