Caught in the Middle

“Refusing to ask for help when you need it is refusing someone the chance to be helpful.”
–Ric Ocasek






Did I mention that the team is still awaiting approval of our strategy?

Oh yes, I did. I’m starting to sound like a broken record.

This morning I was greeted by an email that basically said HQ did not approve our latest revised strategy.  I took the first of several head-clearing walks today in beautiful weather and reflected on the message.

“Did not approve.”

As a developing leader seeking to learn from my experiences, I reflected on the outcome and asked myself the question: “What could I have done differently that would have led to approval?”  It was a nice day today, and I wasn’t in a rush to head back to my training class, so I continued my walk.  I ran into a colleague – not just any colleague, but the team leader on my previous assignment (I was his deputy) – and shared with him the latest news.  Mainly, I was seeking his insights on what I could have done differently if he were in my shoes. The answer: nothing.

On a later head-clearing walk, I conversed with my boss to seek his insights.  He shared some additional details to which he was privy (and I was not yet), and basically reaffirmed the earlier message: nothing.

So, I’m getting a consistent message that there was nothing I could have done differently that would have altered the outcome.  Now for a person like me driven by a model of leadership centered around alignment, actions, and results, I’m left with a puzzling situation: what do I do next? What is my next step?

Clearly, my next step was to get more information.  Actually, I didn’t have to seek far – the information came to me via trusted sources.  Basically, I’m caught in the middle of what appears to be politics and conflicts between key decision makers.  The details are not important for this entry.  Instead, the mere fact that politics and conflicts should be a factor in decision making is the point.  Something that I learned during my time in the NASA leadership development program is that politics and other soft factors become greater factors in decision-making at the higher levels of leadership.  In contrast, lower levels decisions are driven by technical, schedule, and financial reasons.  When I consider the work of the team, I see a very strong strategy built upon clearly rational technical, schedule, and financial bases.  Yet softer considerations are either getting in the way of clear decision making, or are bringing to bear factors that we haven’t considered in our strategy.  Either way, I’m in a position where I don’t know what my next step should be.  That is what led to my head-clearing walks.

Then it hit me. When one doesn’t know what to do, what should one do?

Ask for help.

Understand that as a developing leader, I want to demonstrate competence and capability to lead, so that I will get future opportunities to lead and continue my growth and development.  My natural inclination is to rely upon my own resources to meet the goals of the organization, galvanize the action of the team, and get the results we seek.  Asking for help is tough.  Yet here I am, typing this entry and watching SportsCenter on ESPN showing a segment on USC football, with the lead-in song, “Lean on Me.”  It’s the universe talking to me, amplifying the message of today.

Sometimes, we have to lean on others, and when I realized that, I knew my next step was to ask for help.  So I did.  Turns out that my leadership had already set forth on the next step, to get the key executives together so that we can have a thorough conversation on the strategy.  It could happen as soon as tomorrow.  Or it might be next week.

In any case, what I learned by being caught in the middle is that there is always a next step.  Sometimes it’s a simple as asking for help.

Caught in the Middle