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Leadership Lessons from The Little Prince

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken


Recently, a police officer in Halifax was asked by a pedestrian what they should do about a broken walk signal. The officer replied that they should call the municipality's phone number, noting that it was illegal to cross the street without a walk signal.

Facing an empty street, a pedestrian was told that a 10m walk was impermissible. This is the dark side of accountability; it's not in the officer's interests to allow common sense, but rather, to ensure his safe legal standing.

Thus, the officer is forced to support an unreasonable position. It reminds me of The Little Prince.



Generals and Sea Birds

In the classic book, the little prince comes upon a king:
For what the king fundamentally insisted upon was that his authority should be respected. He tolerated no disobedience. He was an absolute monarch. But, because he was a very good man, he made his orders reasonable.

"If I ordered a general," he would say, by way of example, "if I ordered a general to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not obey me, that would not be the fault of the general. It would be my fault."

"May I sit down?" came now a timid inquiry from the little prince.

"I order you to do so," the king answered him, and majestically gathered in a fold of his ermine mantle.
Ideally we'd be like the king, and only ever ask that which is reasonable. But sometimes we'll be like the officer. In the real world, we ask people, daily, to do things they cannot: navigate labyrinthine client service processes, or understand anchor-heavy, unreadable documents. Or, we prohibit people from doing things that are fairly reasonable, like cross an empty street with a broken walk signal.

Everyone knows this, but it happens anyway - because what people can reasonably be expected to do isn't sufficient for organizations' accountability requirements. Likewise, the king isn't ordering the little prince to sit down because he wants a seated prince; he orders such to be safe in the knowledge that he ordered it.

On the whole, this system of relentless t-crossing, i-dotting, and general ass-covering works out well for us. But we need strategies to deal with the ridiculous outlier cases.


Creatively Saying Yes

Fortunately there is a middle ground. The king could order the tired little prince to stand - honouring an unreasonable policy that all subjects must stand - but provide a shoulder to lean on.
  • Like the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, leaders can hire both lawyers and designers to find the middle ground between what is legally required in a document and what is understandable.
  • Like the Pacific region of Public Works, leaders can prepare a lengthy annual plan for corporate responsibilities, then remix the information into a interesting roadmap for everyone else.
  • Like one manager I know, leaders can informally implement flex time for employees to work on projects of their choosing, in the absence of a organization-wide policy.
Leaders can, as my colleague Suzanne wrote on her blog, creatively say yes.


It's a Fine Line

In 2012, the Niagara Parks Commission received an application from Nik Wallenda (7th generation of a daredevil family) to tightrope walk the falls. Such stunts were banned. Here's how they explain it on their website:
NPC approved Nik Wallenda’s application to walk a tightrope stretched between the two countries... NPC has ruled that it will consider proposals by stunting professionals no more than once in a generation, or approximately once every 20 years, as a way to pay tribute to the stunting history that helped make Niagara Falls a top global tourism destination.
Such virtuous chicanery, that! The easier answer would have been “stunts aren't allowed.” But by creatively saying yes, they reaped the tourism and publicity benefits while avoiding violating their policies or facing a flood of similar requests.


Get Creative

This is the point at which a normal blogger would draw principles out of the above case studies. But there's nothing particularly clever or shocking, here: It's simply persistence, and resisting blaming a situation on external factors. It's simply not saying "it's not my job." It's reframing problems, and digging through the rest of your toolkit.

It's getting creative, when it'd be easy to give up.