Gnarly Problems


During the spring of 2014, we’ve had a lot of rain where I live! People have had flooded basements, the St. Paul airport, situated near the Mississippi River, installed a temporary flood wall, and there was a mudslide very close to a hospital in Minneapolis (also on the Mississippi River). (Click here for a picture.) There are many other stories of the impact of too much rain, and I have my own. While my basement didn’t get wet, it came close because my sump pump failed during the heaviest rains. Those of you familiar with sump pumps know that removing and replacing a sump pump isn’t normally a challenging project. Not so for me.

Normally, the major steps in sump pump replacement are:

  1. Install drain pipe extension on new pump
  2. Disconnect power and drain pipe for old pump
  3. Pull failed pump out
  4. Lower new pump into the sump basket
  5. Reconnect drain pipe and power
  6. Watch the water get pumped out!

Assuming the right tools and parts are on hand, that’s about a 15 minute project. Just 15 minutes.

But then there is my house. The room where my sump pump is installed is small and also houses my water heater, water softener, in-floor heating system, and furnace. All of that is crammed into a space that is 4ft x 6ft (including a spot in the middle where I can stand). Guess where the sump pump is placed…it is under the air return duct for the furnace. Yes, under it! So, to service the sump pump, I had to remove some of the ducting for the furnace. However, to remove that ducting, I also had to disassemble and remove part of the water softener system. Even then, it was a tight squeeze, giving me barely enough room to access the sump pump.

What should have been a 15-minute project, took five hours (well, four is closer to the truth because I made two trips to the hardware store to get parts I didn’t know I needed). Nevertheless, my simple project turned out to be quite gnarly.

Leadership involves lots of gnarly problems.

Problems that are theoretically 15-minute fixes usually turn out to be much more extensive, 4-hour projects (or 4 days, or 4 weeks, or 4 months, or …). What we see at first is rarely the whole problem. As we examine the issue, we begin to discover the truth of the matter and the issues below the surface are twisted, confusing, and gnarly, much like the picture at the head of this article.

That photo was taken at the Temperance River State Park on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota. Gnarly leadership problems are much like that tree.

At one time, the tree and those roots were covered by ground. The twisted, gnarly nature of those roots were unknown to us. Over time, with rain erosion and the effects of the Temperance River waters rushing over the ground the roots became more and more exposed, revealing their nature.

Leadership is like river waters and rain. Usually patiently, but sometimes in a rush, leaders wash away whatever covers up the nature of problems. We work to expose the true nature of what lies beneath the surface so that clarity is developed through truth.

Ineffective leaders are not courageous enough to disturb the ground. In fact, they may even pave it over thinking they are permanently hiding the problems. We all know, though, that those problems will cause problems nevertheless.

In nature, erosion is usually not a good thing. (In farming, it is a very bad thing.) Leaders, though, need to consistently and persistently work to erode away whatever is covering up problems. How?

Ask questions.
Seek out truth.
Be authentic.
Reward courage.
Be relatable and approachable.

In fact, effective leaders teach the entire organization to erode gnarly problems. It is not just the leader’s job. In such an organization, problems will have little time to develop gnarly roots!

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.