Finding the Yin and Yang of Leadership Culture

All I ever needed to know about leadership culture came from two stickers on a desk 30+ years ago.

This is an article on reflection on and appreciation of the lessons one’s childhood can provide. As a parent, I’m fond of thinking about how kids see the world. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized many of the lessons I needed for later in life were right in front of me. It only took time to understand them.

First, some autobiography…

I had the great privilege to grow up around a couple of entrepreneurs.

No, let me rephrase that…

I had the great privilege to grow up around a couple of drop dead risk takers.

Few people get to do that.

That privilege came with the ups and the downs of business ownership in an era of significant change. I was immersed in both the elation of business success and the absolute devastation of bankruptcy.

My childhood included vacations in Aspen and L.A.–a real treat for a kid living on the Gulf Coast–followed by an extended stint living with relatives and years of palming a “free or reduced lunch” card to the lunch lady at my high school.

Such is life, and I’m a lot better for it.

Still, I learned about what risk is and isn’t; and about what accountability, likewise, is and isn’t.

The cool part, though, is what I learned by osmosis in those years of walking around smaller businesses and the people in them. In that environment I had free rein to explore all kinds of cool equipment, and to interact with all sorts of people.

One of the businesses was a private ambulance service, the other was a telephone answering service.

In one business, I got to play around in an old Cadillac ambulance like this one:


Yes, it was Ghostbusters style (or, for a more apt but obscure cinematic description of the operation as I remember it: Mother, Jugs & Speed).

Ours was blue.

I can still smell its interior and see the duct tape on one of the seats where the rotary-dialed radio telephone (yes, rotary) was installed.

In the other business, I was witness to the transition of telephone answering services from old-fashioned telephone switchboard operators–no kidding, like Lilly Tomlin’s “Ernestine” character–
to computerized switching. I spent so much time around those operators that I can still today recite some of the customers:

“M&M Patio, may I help you?”

Those operators doing their thing still ring through the ages for me. All this was in the time before voicemail largely displaced that particular profession.

Enjoying my free rein, I could play with old telephone equipment to my heart’s content, and I could explore the emergency medical equipment and tools in all directions.

I knew what an Ambu bag and mass trousers were before I could diagram a sentence.

I learned how to patch a switchboard at the same time I learned to ride a bike.

I had full access. In retrospect, it was a part of my childhood that was replete with lessons.

What I learned

Both businesses were 24x7x365, reactive operations. As the son of entrepreneurs running businesses of this sort, I grew to expect that mom worked the holidays.

More significant than that: I never, ever, witnessed an adult say “that’s not my job” or “I’m off today, somebody else will handle it” or “I’m calling in sick today.”

Never.

It was no big deal…we knew why.

Accountability.

Ownership.

Risk taking.

That simple reality alone has had a profound impact on my life and work, not to mention on the (low) level of my appreciation for paycheck players and iron bureaucrats of all sorts.

The entrepreneur’s life wasn’t easy, but it was colorful.

To this day, I’ll take colorful over easy anytime.

But, I digress.

It was about the people…

The part that was most interesting is what I took away from the people; and that’s what this article is about. 24X7 professional operations of these sorts have a lot of downtime for the people in them.

To wit, I can remember building model airplanes with one of the EMTs, learning how to properly wash a car and change out spark plugs from another; and getting to know all sorts of people who worked in the business–old, young, men, women, black, white, creole, Asian, serious, funny, mean, nice and all points in between on each.

Such personalities and the inherent downtime of the operations mixed to produce some amusement and some lessons for a kid like me wandering around the operation.

Which brings me to this:

How I found the Yin and Yang of leadership culture in the bunk room of an ambulance service

In the sleeping quarters for the overnight ambulance crews–replete with bed frames hammered together with pine 2x4s and framing nails–was a steel desk. I’d be willing to bet it had been picked up at an army surplus auction back in the 1970s.

At some point, a person had used a cool-for-that-time-period Dymo label maker, one like the one in the picture here, to leave behind some wisdom on its right side pull-out writing surface.

That person, likely bored beyond comprehension and enjoying a moment toying around with the label maker; pressed out a phrase.

It read:

It’s the basic definition of accountability. The Yang of leadership culture.

Probably thinking it was a good phrase to live by (or just a way of ribbing other crew members), the person peeled and stuck the phrase to the writing surface of the desk.

At some point later, a second person took the same labeller and pressed out Phrase 2. It read:

Phrase 2 was stuck just below Phrase 1… as a sort of quasi-professional, realpolitik-driven retort to the self righteousness of Phrase 1. The Yin of leadership culture.

I suppose I discovered the two stickers when I was 8 or 9 years old. I have never spoken or written of them until I decided to write this short article.

Probably half of that is because of the language they are written with isn’t all that polite; and half is because it has taken me a long time to really grasp the significance of their brutal and ironic simplicity.

The significance of the Yin and Yang…

Now, language aside–and, yes, I spent all of my childhood around a crew that could curse the paint off the walls–these two phrases encompass two very different and very relevant sides of leadership culture.

One one side are the people who take responsibility. On the other side are those who duck responsibility.

The dark and the light.

The Yin and the Yang.

You have, in the form of two very basic phrases, the foundations of organizational and leadership culture.

Just as the Tao I’ve used in the opening image for this post implies that light and dark reinforce one another, and to a small degree reside within one another; these two sides of leadership culture reinforce and infiltrate one another.

In most organizations, there is a competitive equilibrium between the accountable set and the avoidant set. The accountable ones find positions and actions that are profitable, and the avoidant ones do the same.

It is in the behaviors that we, the leaders, reward that we determine which set gets to be dominant.

Which animals do you feed, and which do you slaughter?

I’ve seen organizations feed both sides. Based on that, I’d choose accountable.

Why this matters

I hope you’ll take away two things from this story:

First, this matters because great leaders give credit and take responsibility.

Do you find yourself in a culture where people do that? Or, at least, do you find that accountable people are rewarded more than avoidant ones?

Or, do you find yourself in a culture where people give responsibility and take credit? They lay off risk and lay on the stories of their successes.

It’s a simple assessment. Are the most accountable people in your organizations also the ones most likely to be “slaughtered” when the fan stops spinning?

It’s an existential question for individuals and for organizations.

Second, I hope you’ll see that this story matters because your organization and community is training its next generation of leaders.

No, it’s not doing so through your training programs.

It’s doing so through the equivalent of a label maker and a desktop.

The informal culture wins the day. The behaviors that get fed day in and day out are the ones that grow.

It really doesn’t matter what speeches, brochures, or PowerPoint documents you distribute.

The reason I went into detail on the autobiographical vignette is that I was made a better professional and leader by the diverse and sometimes “not-fit-for-kids” environments that I was able to explore and experience.

The diversity of experience I was blessed with has made me better.

I’m sure, somewhere out there, there are kids (and young professionals) who still get those types of experiences; and I hope all of us as parents and leaders will encourage them.

In the meantime, the rest of us can learn by osmosis from this particular Yin and Yang of leadership culture.

Feed the accountable ones.

Please share your thoughts on this article below…

2 replies
  1. Thomas Pagsisihan
    Thomas Pagsisihan says:

    Hey Geoff,
    I do enjoy your posts, especially the comments of, “In most organizations, there is a competitive equilibrium between the accountable set and the avoidant set. The accountable ones find positions and actions that are profitable, and the avoidant ones do the same.” Some of us try to be the accountable set, but this notion seems to be a double edged sword, because you can be rewarded with even more responsibility, while the avoidants linger for years (in the same position). The challenge for me is to understand, how I make it to the next level of leadership while accepting more projects to the point where it can be unmanageable.

    Reply
    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      Great point. One of the nasty little secrets is that organizations are littered with people who used to be the accountable ones, and who are now the avoidant ones. Culture does that to people. In companies that move fast, avoidant mindsets get relegated to functional boneyards (HR used to be a great example, but companies are upping their games there). The rest of the company has to move so fast, that it requires accountability. So, the equilibrium point is far to the side of the accountable set. In slow-moving companies and organizations, the opposite is true. Avoidant mindsets can dominate. As for you, the individual, I’ll just say it: choose accountability and rest well at night. Oh, and don’t take on too many projects!

      Reply

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