I love the book We Bought a Zoo. It’s a chronicle about a family who bought a run-down zoo before the animals had to be shipped out or euthanized. They had no background in running zoos, but they felt a passion for the possibility of a noble success.
My favorite story starts with an employee running into the new Zoo Director’s office to tell him the jaguar had escaped. Yet instead of dashing out into the city streets looking for victims, the jaguar leaped into the tiger’s cage next door.
The Zoo Director grabbed his gun and ran to the big cat’s cages. Why the gun? Hopefully, they could scare them apart. If they had to break up a fight, it would be better to kill one animal than to lose them both. In this case, the jaguar was the endangered species and must be preserved.
It was likely Sovereign, a male jaguar, had never seen a tiger in person until that moment. Tammy, a female tiger, was more than twice his weight and size. The Zoo Director arrived just in time to see Sovereign leap at Tammy. With one movement, Tammy smacked the smaller Sovereign across the cage like a toy. Apparently she didn’t have to adhere to society’s definition of gender and could show her strength at will.
Then, as if daring Sovereign to try again, Tammy jumped to a top of a rock, roared and crouched, ready to leap. The Zoo Director had to decide if it was time to shoot her.
But wait! There is another way to approach this problem. Yes, leaders must take decisive action in a crisis and especially in the face of danger. Or do they?
Before he pulled the trigger, the female cat keeper Kelly ordered all available men to line up in front of the cage and yell loudly at Tammy. Kelly knew Tammy didn’t like men or shouting.
All the available men, including the IT consultant and groundskeepers, quickly formed and line and started yelling at the tiger, telling her she was bad, she should go to her room, she doesn’t play well, and whatever else they could think to yell.
Tammy looked as if she were sprayed with water. She squinted and flattened her ears. The two female cat keepers gently called Tammy to her house. Within moments, she jumped off the rock and ran to her room. The door slammed behind her. Then working together, the male and female zookeepers lured the jaguar back to his cage.
When do you feel you have to make a decision on your own? In my years of teaching leadership classes, I have heard too many excuses from leaders and high-achievers who insist that they must make certain decisions on their own and much of their work can’t be delegated. Is this absolutely true? Here are some ideas to help you determine if you have to act on our own or can elicit ideas from your (hopefully) diverse team:
Tip #1: Is it a rule or a habit?
When you are making a difficult decision or handling details because you think you are the only one with answers, ask yourself, “Is it true that there is no one I can ask to help me?” People like being asked for their advice and assistance. Even if you end up acting on your own, at least they helped you weigh the options.
When I teach leadership classes, I ask the question, “What do your procedural and organizational rules say to people? Do they say, ‘I don’t trust you?’ or do your rules say, “I believe in your competence to contribute and trust that you will give your best?” It’s time to change your rules and procedures so that people feel engaged and valued.
Tip #2: Who would have a different interpretation of the event?
It is always good to ask others for their interpretation of an event to see if you are missing something. In the zoo story, the director was coming from a preservation interpretation. His female cat keeper, who works with the animals daily, had a different interpretation about the problem and the solution. Fill in your blanks by gathering other perspectives, even in a crisis.
Tip #3: Are you willing to let go of being the one who knows?
If the foundation of your success has been your intelligence and experience, then it is often hard to let someone else have the right answer. If you ask for help, will people question the core of who you think you are—the one who knows? The truth is, if you are truly the one with the most knowledge and answers, people will feel honored when you ask them for their ideas.
The best leaders assemble diverse teams with different perspectives so the best answers will emerge. If the day needs to be saved, it will be done by everyone working together.
Marcia Reynolds, PsyD is a leadership coach and sought-after speaker. Her bestselling book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction has been quoted in Psychology Today, ForbesWoman, The Daily Beast, and Metro News Canada. She is also the author of Outsmart Your Brain and teaches classes worldwide on emotional intelligence and leadership.