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Four ways to lead out of a tangled mess

Business lessons learned from a fishing trip


Feeling good because my first cast landed a rainbow trout, I confidently tried to cast underneath a low hanging tree and ended up with a tangled mess of flies and line that took 10 minutes to unravel. I’m relatively new to fly-fishing and am amazed (and amused) at my ability to do stupid things. Thank goodness fish can’t tell stories!

On the way home from this fishing trip, I thought about the lessons you can learn with a fly rod in your hand and how they might apply to business.

As far as I know, there are only four things to do when you get a tangled mess like this.

Quit for the day. If I’ve had a good day with a few in the net and the sun is setting, this is viable. If you’re a CEO, regardless of whether you created the mess or inherited it, this is probably your last option. I recently had lunch with a CEO who was hit hard by some government action that wasn’t his doing, but there he was, fighting the good fight without a viable option … yet! Every once in a while you can get into a situation that’s beyond your current ability. The question is, do you keep searching for an answer or call it a day?

Cut out the mess, hopefully retaining the flies, and retie the line. The ROI on this can be pretty high because monofilament isn’t horribly expensive and you may save a lot of time. It happens in business too. Throwing good money and effort after bad for ego reasons to try saving a tangled mess is sometimes irrational. Better to cut loose the mess and sell the division, close the store or replace the person responsible.

Use brute force, usually out of frustration. When you start pulling line in every which way, you quickly end up with an impenetrable knot that’ll never come undone. This translates just as “effectively” to business situations. When you try to overpower a situation, it may feel good as a release for your frustration. But whether or “knot” you can see it, you’ve probably just caused a bigger mess.

Put on your glasses (perhaps some of you can see at the micron level without them, but I can’t!), carefully observe the mess you created and start gently untangling. You can usually find a way to restore the line to its original format in a few minutes, but only with patience. The translation to business is that you need to properly diagnose the problem and really “see” the issue before trying to fix anything by pulling loose ends. Whether fishing or leading an organization, this is most often the best course of action.

There’s one last option that works very poorly: Leave the mess alone and try to get the flies back into the water as is. Doesn’t work! The fish are smart enough to see a mess and not take the bait. Ignoring a mess in your organization and trying to proceed as if it doesn’t exist is no more successful. Your people are much more adept than trout at seeing a web of snarled mass and will just swim right around it.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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