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Great Leaders Know the Difference Between a Wave and a Deep Undercurrent

Carson didn’t want to hire Emily. She was under qualified and didn’t seem to have a real passion for the work his department did. But, as a new manager, he succumbed to pressure from an overworked HR representative, and brought her on board.

Over the next few weeks, Emily required more of Carson’s time and energy than anyone else on his team. But, he kept her. Why? Because after each difficult coaching conversation, Emily displayed waves of enthusiasm. She seemed to be learning. She seemed to be more committed. And then, as quickly as the wave came, it was gone, and they were back to square one.

Needless to say, it didn’t work.

But it took Carson nearly nine months to push the button on Emily’s termination. Why? Because he was focused on her waves of enthusiasm (which, let’s face it, were short-lived attempts to save her job), rather than the deep undercurrent of what he already knew – she wasn’t qualified for, or passionate about the work she was doing.

Waves represent a brief snapshot in time, whereas deep undercurrents represent long-term truth. This is why failing to understand how they operate in our lives can be not only disorienting, but also time-wasting and even dangerous.

Your boss says something critical one day, and suddenly you hate your job. She says something nice a week later, and you never want to leave it. You’re being tossed around in the waves.

The week your co-workers do a 360 evaluation of you happens to be the same week you’ve made a controversial decision that pissed many of them off. Or, you made them look good. Either way, those waves make it impossible for you to see the deep underlying current of the state of your relationships.

Your competitor has a bad quarter. Hmmmm. Is it because customers are turning away from them? Or is it due to a temporary glitch in supply as they shift to a newer, better, faster manufacturer? Overconfidence generated by that one wave could cause you to ignore a major competitive threat.

Waves are superficial. They move this way and that way depending on the wind and the weather. They can be interesting. They’re definitely distracting. And for some reason, not focussing on them feels almost negligent. The waves are here! They’re right in front of us! They mean something! We must do something! Judge something! Abolish something!

Deep undercurrents on the other hand, move in a single direction no matter what the weather is. Sometimes, the current is scary, especially if it’s going in a direction we don’t necessarily want it to go. And this is the problem. Often, we’d rather ignore the current so we can play in the waves. But ignoring the deep undercurrent leads to chasing red herrings, faulty decision making, band aide solutions and ultimately, bigger, more entrenched problems.

In other words, if you focus on the waves for too long, before you know it, you’ll be drowning.

Now think about your own life.

Are you chasing waves?

Or sensing undercurrents?

We'll talk about how to do that next week.


The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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