Leaders Are Planned, Not Scripted

I get into trouble sometimes. As a presenter, I see this comment once in a while on evaluations: “He didn’t follow the handout.”

My response to patterns of critical comments on evaluations is to generally take them to heart and adapt my practice so it has more impact.

But not this one.

Toward the beginning of a session, I now make sure to say something like, “By the way, I will not follow the handout in order. It’s possible we won’t talk about everything on the handout. Hopefully, it will be a helpful resource for you in the future. But our direction will change based on your questions, discussions, and discoveries.”

I’ve come to believe leaders need to have a plan but beware of a rigid script.

(This is different than “winging it” or “making it up as you go.” Those are situations when you have neither a script nor a plan.)

Leaders need to understand their context, the people they serve, and the body of knowledge required for their setting, whether it’s a class on communication, the marketing of a protein, or the operations of ingredient manufacturing. They need to know and develop standard operating procedures using manuals or checklists. But that’s not enough.

There are times leaders come across the unexpected.

If a leader’s mission is meet needs, they will encounter times when the manuals and checklists don’t account for the situation.

An elegant read about this topic is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. According to Gladwell, we “think without thinking.” One of the examples from the book that stuck with me was the tennis coach who could know when a player was going to double fault before it actually happened. It wasn’t psychic powers or lucky guesses; it was the product of a lifetime of working with players.

Leaders (and other decision makers) do best when they become as well-versed and experienced as possible, and then allow themselves to be free to act as the context allows.

I’m currently reading Say Yes to the Mess by Frank J Barrett (on loan from my friend Ajit), which is another deep dive into this way of viewing leadership. Two great examples that underscore the notion of being planned but not scripted include:

  1. There was a time Xerox created repair manuals that dictated a predetermined diagnostic solution for every single copier malfunction. Over time they found it was more effective to give repair people freedom to use previous experience and expertise to solve problems.
  2. When Lt. Col. Chris Hughes led the U.S. 101st Battalion in the Iraq War, there was a moment when a communication problem turned some local civilians from friendly to hostile. The “manual” or “standard operating procedure” from his training gave Hughes two options for this situation: use low-flying helicopters to literally blow people back or fire warning shots. He chose neither. Instead, he ordered his soldiers to lower their weapons, take a knee, and smile. The communication problem was resolved, lives were saved, and the operation continued safely.

That’s an inspiring story.

Even so, it’s important to note Lt. Col. Hughes didn’t “wing it.” He combined several things:

  • His knowledge of the usual effects of the standard practices.
  • The local culture and how they might react to communication.
  • His own soldiers’ willingness to do something unusual.

This moment is where two skills merged: relentless learning and a disciplined imagination.

Give yourself freedom to improvise, and allow others to do so as well. Anyone can follow a checklist; learning combined with creativity can bring us to better solutions.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

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