The Mouse, The Maze and The Cheese – A Secret to Great Leadership
I can be a very impatient person. It’s a flaw in my leadership abilities because, to be a great leader, sometimes you have to let the pace slow and be patient, even if it drives you mad. This story about the mouse, the maze, the cheese and the Scottish creative director explains why.
Bruce Matchett is hard to understand at the best of times. His passion, energy and strong Scottish accent make him hard work to follow. But one night in Singapore in 2011 he told a story about leadership which I actually understood. It shocked me. It made me realize how my impatience made me a less effective leader, and an appalling coach. It’s stuck with me ever since, and often is front of mind now as I am about to counsel a colleague on a course of action. In fact, it makes me shut up. Here’s why.
“I’ve been working in this industry for a long time, and been a leader for most of it,” Bruce told CEO Mike and I that night. “When working with younger people, there’s seldom a problem or an issue they bring to me that I have not seen before, and don’t know how to fix.
“It’s like a mouse in a maze. If he’s been in that maze many times before, he knows where the cheese is. So rather than go all the way around the maze to get to the cheese, he simply jumps the hedges, and hey presto- munch munch.” (Bruce does not speak like that by the way- poetic license here…)
“I do that. I know the answer often when I see my teams working on an issue. I’m in a hurry. So I jump the hedges to the cheese, and tell them the answer. But I realized that to be a great leader, sometimes you have to shut up, and let the younger guys find the cheese themselves, even if it slows you down. It is the only way they will learn and grow.”
Let the younger mice find the cheese themselves, even if it slows you down.
It reminds me too of a story my brother Greg – a highly successful recruitment industry leader – told in a speech on leadership to the STW High Performers leadership conference in Bowral, New South Wales, a few years ago.
“In my youth I was an outstanding kicker of a rugby ball. I could kick a penalty goal from just about anywhere on the field, within reason- even from my own 40 meter line. I was quite simply a brilliant goal kicker.” (My brother does talk like this, by the way, often, and sometimes he’s almost telling the truth…sometimes).
“Years later my elder son was learning to play rugby. He wanted to be a goal kicker. I took him to the park to show him how to do it. I placed the ball. Took five careful steps back, ran in with ease, and kapow…over the goal posts it sailed. ‘See, that’s how you do it. Place the ball at this angle. Walk back to a comfortable length at this angle to the ball. Then watch the ball, not the posts, And hey presto! Here, I’ll show you again.” And he went on to kick a dozen balls right over the black dot.
After about 15 minutes his son looked up at him and said: “Dad- would it be ok if I had a go?”
The best way your team will learn is by doing it for themselves. Give them a compass point, of course, but then give them the time and permission to work it out, even if there are some false starts along the way.
There are always exceptions- when the stakes are too high, or a deadline too pressing. But in many cases, it’s just about managing your own impatience, and allowing your people to navigate the maze themselves.
And I am told the cheese tastes better too when they find it.
*Wrestling Possums will be a day late next week…on Thursday 29th of March because CEO of Getting It Done, Martine, is in hospital and out of action the day before. But she will be forced out of her bed to load up Possums the next day.*