Messy Leadership

Messy Leadership by Dr. Robert Gerwig

Photo by Author

Not everything is neat and orderly. … Early one morning I was walking around the grounds of Club Serena, a small beach resort in Moaboal, Cebu. A colorful ceramic vase caught my eye. As I observed more carefully, I saw that there were small flowers arranged in the vase, actually floating on water. Wow! It was pretty, creative, and orderly. Someone had taken time to arrange these flowers, neatly, with care, with precision. This vase was not haphazardly thrown together.

Gerwig, my family name, is of German origin. In the mid-1800s, a couple Gerwig brothers came from Germany to the US and settled in the hills of western Virginia (and after 1863, West Virginia) as it reminded them of home, Bavaria. They settled in an area with other German families. … If you’ve never noticed, Germans, by and large, are orderly, neat, and precise. Visiting the homes and farms in the West Virginia hills where my German ancestors settled, one sees orderliness. Houses are clean. The fields are plowed in neat lines. Tools are cared for and put it their proper place. Regardless of one’s economic status, rich or poor, the community and those in it, place a high value on order.

You may have visited countries like Switzerland or cities like Singapore. If so, you know what I mean about orderliness and precision. Trains are on time, the streets are clean, people use the crosswalk (no jaywalking) – in a word, the “I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed.” There aren’t “loose ends” and there aren’t visible messes.

People, on the other hand, are another matter. People are messy. Even people in Germany, Switzerland, or Singapore are messy – on the inside if not always the outside.

What do I mean? People are emotional. They get upset. They get their feelings hurt. They get angry. Mad. Frustrated. They think they should’ve been promoted instead of their colleague. They gossip. They see things through a different filter than you do. They bring their personal problems to work with them. Divorce. Financial debt. Terminal illness. In-law issues. They bring the problems of their children to work. The challenges of going through the teenage years, of going off to college, of going to a new school.

As a leader, learning that people are messy is a start. Yet it takes more than recognition. It takes an acceptance and a willingness. Acceptance that messiness is “normal” and willingness to get in the middle of the mess and bring a degree of order. You won’t be able to completely eliminate all the mess nor to prevent it’s occurrence in the future, but you can, and should, roll-up-your-sleeves and work through it so that you will meet your organizational objectives AND help people. Serve them. Honor them. Respect them. Bring a degree of order to their lives. Demonstrate empathy. Care. Compassion.

At your peril, you can ignore the mess people bring with them. You can also let it frustrate you and cause distraction. Or, you can recognize it is “normal” and a part of the leadership process. As always, it’s a choice. And the choice is yours.

How do you deal with messy people or messy situations?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

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