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.*


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17 Responses to The Mouse, The Maze and The Cheese – A Secret to Great Leadership

  1. Faye March 21, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Hey Chris,

    Attended your Eat the Frog course yesterday at the Mothership, really enjoyed it and have loads to go home and think about so thanks for that.

    One question though, on point number 2 “Plan every day in advance” you covered everything on the slide apart from the 10/90 rule, can you explain that please?

    I know on the next slide there was a 80/20 rule which you went through but the 10/90 rule wasn’t mentioned, or else I was too busy scribbling notes and missed it.


    • Chris Savage March 21, 2012 at 11:06 am #

      One minute in planning saves you nine minutes in execution…10 minutes planning saves you 90 minutes etc

      • Faye March 21, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

        thank you!!

  2. Cameron Wall March 21, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    This lovely video that can hopefully help the clients understand the creative process a bit more and the difference ‘time to think’ makes.

    Yes you want your project delivered like, yesterday but the results might be infinitely better if you just made more time and didn’t churn it out.

    This is how you produce “very nice” cheese –

    • Chris Savage March 21, 2012 at 11:08 am #

      Thanks Cameron!

  3. Sara Lucas March 21, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    Hi Chris
    My husband and I are friends with Greg and Bronwyn and I laughed out loud reading this. Too funny! Love the blog, very frank and insightful.

    • Chris Savage March 21, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Thanks! One thing about him- he has the courage to tell stories that show his failings…and that’s leadership in action!

  4. Stella March 21, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    You are a great leader and a gifted coach / mentor of young talent despite your sometimes questioning of yourself (which is good as it keeps it real).

    Is there a case which you’re most proud of? Or indeed where your coaching skills failed you?

    Lots of love from the sandpit. Xxx

    • Chris Savage March 21, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

      Only with one HR director I worked with who used to turn up basically naked…or at least in very revealing gear. But that’s another story for another day…. Chris

  5. Jessica March 21, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    Great post Chris. Love your brother’s confidence about his abilities. Reminds me of my dad, who was in the Air Force.

    Young Jess: Dad, why do you get to lead the parades?
    Dad: Because I’m so handsome and so smart, chick.
    Young Jess: Ok!
    Dad: Actually, it’s because I can’t march in time. They keep me up the front out of the way so I don’t mess it up.

    And good luck in hospital Martine! X

    • Chris Savage March 22, 2012 at 11:28 am #

      Thanks Jess ! Great story! Chris

  6. Suzanne Acteson March 21, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    Can’t agree enough Chris but it’s not easy to do! I’m the queen of ‘ya but’ interjections in a meeting because I have my reality lens on but realise that I new to sit back and shut up sometimes to let my teams figure it out themselves.
    My husband sounds like your brother… “dad, when is my turn?!” love it!

  7. Tony Spencer-Smith March 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    Patience is a leadership virtue, Chris, you’ve hit the nail on the head. How better to get people to buy in if they work things out for themselves. I would extend the theme to training – an impatient trainer is going to damage a lot of people – and to life in general. We seem to pride ourselves on doing everything faster and faster. But lots of the best stuff comes out of reflection.

  8. Kamal March 22, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Hi Chris love the post!

    • Chris Savage March 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

      Thanks Kamal- and I loved your new book!

  9. Matthew Gain March 24, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    I really like this post Chris – thanks for sharing. Good lesson and something to remember.

    I wonder if Martine should be letting you find the cheese with the uploading though. It really isn’t that hard. 😉

    Seriously though love your writing – please keep it up.

    • Chris Savage March 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

      Thanks Matt. Appreciate the feedback. Glad you enjoy it. Chris

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