Drop Your Tools
by Julie Diamond category courage Leadership Learning

It’s an enormously stressful time. Under stress we grab for the familiar. We double down on our instincts, on what we know best and what we do best, even if it’s irrelevant to the situation. Or worse, even if it’s harmful.

David Epstein (also known for his very cool TED talk, Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, Stronger?) in his fascinating book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph In a Specialized World, tells the story of wildfire fighters who die because they won’t drop their tools.

Trying to outrun a fire racing towards them at 11 feet per second, some firefighters clung to their chainsaws, held onto their saws and axes, even tried to run with their heavy packs. After the deadly Storm King Mountain fire in Colorado, in which 14 firefighters lost their lives battling the blaze, bodies were recovered with their packs still on, hands still gripping an axe or saw.

That’s a grim picture. But it paints the stark reality that under extreme stress, we cling to what we know, not because it works, but because it feels normal, safe, and comforting.

Consider our strengths. Under pressure we tend to double down on our reflexive traits and skills, sometimes that works, but more often, it just makes things worse.

I once coached a leader who was a brilliant technical expert, but was stalled in his career trajectory because he wouldn’t drop his tool. In this case, his tool was his deep technical expertise.

While that expertise got him to where he was now, it wasn’t getting him further because the problems he was now solving were not technical ones, but strategic, political, and relational ones: he had to coach and develop his team; advise senior leaders interested in the strategic impact of new technologies; collaborate with peers and stakeholders across the organization.

None of these required deep levels of technical knowledge. And yet, what did he do?

  • When coaching his direct reports, he corrected their work, but failed to help them do it themselves or understand their errors.
  • When advising senior leaders he dove deep into the weeds of the technology, losing his audience by failing to speak to its needs.
  • When collaborating with peers and stakeholders, he only saw the problem from his viewpoint, and didn’t know how to link his knowledge to theirs.

In each situation, he failed because rather than reading the room, and adapting his influencing skills to what was required, he just double-downed on the influencing skills he knew best, the one he was most comfortable with.

He was using the superpower that made him feel powerful, yet it actually made him less powerful in the eyes of others.

What about now? What are people clinging to now, under the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is a completely different virus than anything we’ve witnessed before, in terms of its transmission, symptoms, duration. And yet, some people just double down on their pet theories about health—eat garlic, drink water every 15 minutes, turn off your electronics, eat bananas.

Others cling to conspiracy theories that offer a sense of agency and control —it’s a plot to re-engineer society, a partisan bioweapon, or caused by 5G cellular networks.

What about you? What tools might you be clinging to now to make it through this stressful time? Some may be helpful, but maybe some aren’t. Consider which tools are serving you know and which ones, while perhaps comforting, are doing more harm than good.

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