Leadership Is Not Programming Your Team

My Great Uncle has fantastic stories. I wanted to share one here that he told me. It’s always been a valuable story to me about being innovative, leadership, and not being afraid to take a risk.

My Uncle tells the story best, so here is my attempt to do it justice. In the 1950s and through the early 1990s my Great Uncle was a Project Manager for General Electric. He worked on a bunch of fascinating projects, two projects he was assigned too that I always found fascinating were that he lead a engineering team on NASA projects during the Apollo missions and worked on missile defense radar systems in Saudi Arabia.

When he was being trained as a manager by GE, one of the sessions was on leadership. The facilitator told a story about a science experiment with a gold fish. Every day scientists would feed a gold fish at the same time during the day and in the same spot. Each day at 12, the fish would get fed and go back to doing whatever it is a fish does. Eventually, the fish was programmed to go get food everyday at 12. The scientists then decided to feed the fish at a different time and placed a small barrier for the fish to swim around to get the food. The fish wouldn’t go get the food, it had been programmed a certain way.

In my Uncles’ version of the story, the fish dies. As a kid when I heard this story, I always felt really bad for the fish. The fish was programmed, the scientists did it – the fish shouldn’t have paid the burden of the scientists experiment. I still feel this way too. I never liked the ending. It also caused me to grossly over feed my pet fish as a kid.

Although the story is simplistic by nature, the story holds a lot of interesting observations about leadership. Part of leadership is not to be afraid to try something new, go in a different direction and to avoid getting “programmed” in your leadership style. Leadership is a constant balancing act, it’s not being so rigid in your process that you stifle innovation and, likewise, it is not being so flippant that people get lost at sea.

The lesson is to learn how to develop new ways of thinking, new ways to act, and finding new ways to accomplish tasks. Good organizations turn great because leadership learns to evolve and adapt to challenges they face across all areas of their organization.

How Do You Avoid Getting Programmed?

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Corey McCarren

I avoid being ‘programmed’ by always trying to evolve and learn new things. I can’t do the “daily grind”. Where I am now (GovLoop), I don’t have the daily grind, I feel like I’m able to explore new projects and learn for my future, when things change. Let’s say that a series of unfortunate events happened, and I wound up at a job that didn’t allow for innovation and exploration. I would continue doing what I do now, and go learn about emerging technology, go to local events that I find interesting, ect, until I can get out of it and not feel like I’m behind the curve.