Leadership Lessons from the Prankster Cat

By Gary Clayton

How well do you pay attention to your environment? Especially to the people who depend on you? It is far too easy to assume that you know what is going on with them – and that assumption can cost you dearly. This was brought home to me in a personal way just hours after my last posting. I’ve always prided myself in looking beyond the obvious, because that is how I have helped many leaders save their organization from calamities. And yet….

I should have paid attention to Jack

Jack the Prankster Cat

Wise leaders listen to and observe all who are around them. Even Jack, the Prankster Cat, can have something important to communicate.

On July 31, just a couple of hours after finishing my blog post, I was sitting in my office typing on my laptop when Jack, our orange prankster cat, dashed into my office. He glanced wildly around, jumped on top of the printer and dove behind my filing cabinet. I assumed this was one more nutty behavior by Jack and he would get stuck back there. So I focused on making sure he got out (he did, without my help).

It was another hour before I decided to go check for mail in our mailbox. When I opened the front door, I was shocked to see that a 24-inch diameter maple had fallen, just missing our master bedroom by about ten feet. I was shocked again when I walked up our driveway and saw the entrance was blocked by another fallen tree, a 16-inch diameter pine.

We had just had a small thunderstorm, not much thunder and not much storm. The weather service had clocked sustained 58 mph winds at its nearest station, certainly not a big deal. But we had been hit by a straight-line wind of a higher velocity. The one road out of our community was blocked by a fallen tree and our little community was effectively cut in half by another tree that had fallen across the road.

When Jack exhibited his wild, excited behavior in diving behind my filing cabinet, I assumed that this craziness was all about Jack. I foolishly trusted my experience of the previous minute and discounted his.

Leadership lessons from the prankster cat

I have had plenty of time over last week to reflect on this experience while using my chainsaw, ax and wheelbarrow to cut up and move both trees, plus one that fell in the backyard across my neighbor’s fence. Here’s what has been refreshed for me:

  1. Observe closely what is going on around you. Don’t assume that you are seeing or hearing all of it until you have walked around and listened to all parties in and around your organization.
  2. Consider the experience of all parties seriously. Jack had a lot to tell me that I ignored. Luckily, nothing serious happened to our property or cars, but a couple of my neighbors had trees fall on their houses or autos.
  3. Be prepared for calamity. In my case, I had a chainsaw, ax and wheelbarrow that speeded the clearing off the damage. Many of my neighbors didn’t.
  4. Prevent calamity where you can. I had been eyeing that 25-inch maple for the past two years, not liking how the main trunk leaned toward our house. Yet I hadn’t done anything about it. Foolish.
  5. Help others deal with calamity. In this case, when I came out and saw the damage, another chainsaw was already buzzing in the neighborhood. Neighbors were going from yard to yard, helping each other cut up trees that were on the roads and driveways. Next time, I will be out earlier so I can be of more help to those who helped me.

The very most important lesson is don’t let your past experience fool you into complacency. This is a complex - and at times chaotic – world. No natter how much experience you have, you will continue to have new experiences, experiences that will surprise you. You must prepare, yet you will never guess all possibilities that will come true. To be truly effective in leading your organization, you must observe and consider all that happens, taking everyone’s experience seriously.

Complacency can be a killer. Remember the World Trade Center towers collapsing on 9-11-2001? I often wonder what my response would have been, if I were in one of the towers.

I once had a 26th floor office in a building that caught fire below me. By the time I made it to the street level via the extremely crowded fire stairs, the flames were out and everyone was going back into the building. For a year, I lived on the 48th floor of a Chicago high-rise. Kids pulled the alarm nearly every night. After the first three weeks, I didn’t even peer into my floor lobby to see if anyone was heading down the stairs. After two months, I routinely slept through the alarms.

Given my history, if I had been in the World Trade Center, would I have headed down the stairs, or just waited, believing I was safe?

Indeed, complacency can be a killer. When you see someone react to a situation much differently than you do, you need to seriously ask yourself whether they know or understand something important that you don’t. It is one of the most common items that I explore with my clients. Even Jack, the prankster cat, can have something important to communicate.

P.S. Jack now dives behind my filing cabinet several times a day. Is he just having fun - or is he practicing preparedness?

Gary Clayton is a leadership coach who works with leaders and those who wish to become leaders in business and life. He has helped businesses ranging from $28 million to Fortune 500 analyze business interruption risks and develop mitigation approaches.

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