Leadership At The Intersection of Bad and Worse

flat-tire-walthamIt was a difficult—some might say ugly—Board of Director’s meeting.  With the association “bleeding red ink” and its reserves almost depleted, the Board desperately wanted to hear a plan, any plan, for saving their organization.  The new, first-time CEO was fighting fires on every front—marginal cash-flow, overpriced office space, overworked staff, too many expensive outsourced services and stagnating revenues.  In a borrowed meeting room at a member’s office facing an anxious Board, the turnaround plan was laid-out in excruciating detail.  Pro-forma financial and cash flow statements, clear, vivid graphs, detailed severance agreements, outlines for early termination of leases, cost cutting steps and finally the potential sources of revenues including increases for dues, rising education program fees and two new activities with a strong potential to generate much needed additional revenue.  The case for operational cost reductions and revenue growth sufficient to save the Association from extinction were clearly presented.  The tension in the room was palpable and the debate about the much needed change went on at considerable length.

It didn’t take long to realize that as good as the plans were, it would be the proposed dismissal of long-time staff that would ultimately derail the conversation.  Several influential and out-spoken Board members were unwilling to allow the termination of their favored “insider staff”.  By insisting these “favored” staffers be retained, they were severely hobbling the possibility of a financial recovery.  The rest of the Board had no stomach for pushing back against their out-spoken brethren.  The vote in support of the turnaround plan went down to defeat.  With no clear alternative at the hand, various Board members engaged in blaming each other broadly for the failures, ridiculing current and former staff and in short order adjourned the meeting.

Frustrated, demoralized and without a clue as what to do next the new CEO left the Board meeting.  As she drove away, she noticed a member of the Board stopped alongside the driveway changing a flat tire.  She stopped to help.  The two of them struggled with the task of changing the deflated tire and as they worked side-by-side the new CEO shared her feelings about the Board meeting, the lengthy preparation, detailed presentations, challenging debates and the exhausting, hard work of it all.  At a lull in the conversation the Board member glanced up and quietly said, “you know, sometimes even your best just isn’t good enough.”

In that moment an important leadership lesson came to light.  You can do your best.  You can be all you can be.  Sometimes though, you still have to be better.  And that’s what leadership is all about—being better, striving for better and pursuing excellence in all that we do.  Leadership is about changing, adapting, being resilient, sharpening our skills and working to be better, stronger and smarter each and every day.  It’s also knowing where the limitations of one’s best effort lie.

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