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Three Blind Mice

This post is the first in a series that dissects classic nursery rhymes in search of helpful leadership lessons for the proactive, politically savvy manager. Enjoy.

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Three blind mice. Three blind mice.

See how they run. See how they run.

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

Did you ever see such a sight in your life,

As three blind mice?

Organizations are laboratories of two conflicting, oscillating elements: competition and uncertainty. This is not to say that a leader perpetually operates in a competitive paradigm or that every detail ranging from an annual budget to a lunch special is uncertain, but nevertheless competition and uncertainty are omnipresent in organizations. When we then add the economic reality of scarcity into the equation, leaders are effectively transformed into blind mice.

Like the eponymous mice in this nursery rhyme, leaders rapidly mobilize agendas while understanding that their agenda is likely at odds with someone else’s campaign.

If a startup is attempting to corner the online cheese industry, it understands that other startups are pursuing the same consumer wheel and slices are limited. There are a finite number of farmers’ wives, seeking only so many discounts on aged Gouda spreads, and only the first mouse will reap the rewards.  Leaders at each startup then run alongside each other as they attempt to innovate and outperform their competitors on the road to execution.

Compounding their challenge is the reality that each manager is blind as she mobilizes her agenda. In an uncertain world, no one knows exactly where the expressway ends. Even if one knows her destination and scurries ahead of her competitors, there is no guarantee that a plate of cheese awaits the victor.

One startup could successfully monetize their cheese service only to discover that the dairy craze has ended and the market has shifted to a new sector. Or the farmer’s wife consumers may have changed their preferences and no longer want your gorgonzola. Here, executing the agenda can unfortunately mean executing yourself as you discover all your time and invested resources only lead you to the chopping block.

So the next time someone asks if you’ve ever seen such a sight in your life as three blind mice, open your eyes and find a mirror. You work in a challenging environment and it helps to pause occasionally and confirm that you’re not trapped in a fruitless (or cheeseless) rat race.

Pic credit: snacktime2007


The Art of Campaigning

When we think of the concept of campaigning we often think of leaders standing on a platform heralding their unique virtues. We think of the old days of jumping from train station to train station–kissing babies, eating cheeseburgers, and watching a late night movie in the hotel room while reviewing tomorrow’s meetings.

And that’s exactly what campaigning is: long, hard, work. Ask anyone who has walked through the snows of Iowa or been caught in an ice storm in New Hampshire on a campaign trail.  But campaigning is more than that–it’s also a state of mind that essentially starts with a focused goal and the knowledge that you need to get people on your side in order to accomplish it.

Leaders in any setting enter a campaign mode when they have a focused direction which they understand cannot be achieved without rallying others to their position. The backbone of any campaign are the tactics that underline a leaders capacity to get people on their side.

Of late we’ve been rallying around the notion of change–change we can believe in, change for our times, change for our organization, change for the 21st century, and the list goes on–change is all over the place. In academia we talk about leading for change. Well, what other type of leadership is there–leading for holding things constant? Leading for doing nothing?

As political scientists pointed out years ago–leadership implies action or lack of action, it implies change or lack of change, as its focal point. This implies that the critical skills for change leadership is having the capacity to bring people to your position–it implies the capacity to enhance coalitions, lead them, and sustain them.

Point in fact, change leaders are running campaigns and this demands a vigilant attention to micro-skills that will keep people in your corner. It will demand immense interaction skills, superb negotiation skills, and yes, even in the work place–a cheeseburger or two.

Staying in a campaign mode is indeed exhausting–while you may not have to trek in icy New Hampshire a certain degree of awareness, a certain calculation, indeed a healthy bit of paranoia, is necessary.

So if you want to look to individuals who have led change don’t just look to Bill Clinton–look to his campaign manager Jim Carville. Don’t  just look to George W. Bush–look at Ken Mehlman. Don’t just look at Barack Obama–look at David Plouffe.