Feel Like Running Away? Then Do The Opposite.

I had a cool boss early on in my career called Carol.

Carol was the ‘Queen of Wise One Liners’. She delivered these with penetrating wit, a minimum of sugar coating, at pace – and usually in between bites of an apple, which seemed to be her main sustenance during work hours. There were many acerbic, yet infinitely true wisdoms Carol distributed to us leaders who reported to her. But one of Carol’s sage sayings stuck with me.

“Suzi”, she would state with her usual blunt delivery, “when you want to run a million miles away from a thing, it’s probably a sign you should do the exact opposite.”

At the time, I was leading several hectic recruitment teams, managing a couple of major accounts and doing searches for key senior hires myself. I was in the thick of first-time ‘leading of leaders’ and the mercurial world of recruitment.

She was right about the first part.

I wanted to ostrich my way out of these perplexing leadership and customer situations. Avoid the ‘difficult thing’ for as long as I could. Putting my head in the sand was my tempting ‘go to’ move. I’d heard the saying about, ‘shooting the messenger’ and I wasn’t too keen to be the bearer of bad news to clients – or to my team for that matter.

The logical part of my brain knew that sh*t happens. We’re human and things don’t always go to plan. But facing funky situations was not on my list of strengths.

Of course, Carol was right.

When I did take a big deep breath and confront said sh*tstorm, when I followed her sage but difficult advice, when I faced into reality and dealt with it, the problem tended to get resolved quicker. My procrastination anxiety dissolved.  I was able to turn my attention to “what next?”

Sometimes my clients and my team appreciated me front-footing bad news early with them. Sometimes they didn’t.

But just this week, almost twenty years later, Carol’s voice and wisdom came into my head. This time, it wasn’t about facing a difficult situation in my professional life. Her words reverberated into my consciousness as I faced a difficult situation in my personal life.   

I had a meeting booked about a thing to do with my whanau. I woke up with rocks in my gut and jittery legs, dying to flee from having to have this meeting I had so bravely organised last week. I could feel my chest getting tense through breakfast, my ability to concentrate on my work waning mid-morning. By 11am, my desire to avoid this meeting was as strong as my desire to avoid a turbulent plane trip after a big night out. My imaginings of all the worst possible scenarios were playing out in my head with gleeful, Machiavellian abandon.

But just as I was about to pick up the phone and tell them I couldn’t make our meeting, Carol popped up in my consciousness.  

“When you want to run a million miles away from a thing Suzi, it’s probably a sign you should face it”.

Sigh. Far out Carol. You stopped leading me twenty years ago and here you are, still in my head.

So, I did what she said. I fronted up. I leaned into the tough thing. I faced reality and the difficult conversation I knew was going to promise a way through, even if that might mean traversing the underworld, and battling through a whole lot of discomfort, to get there.

I faced into it.

The conversation went brilliantly.

It went better than I could have ever imagined. Yes, there were tough moments of discomfort, vulnerability and hard truths to face. There may have even been a few discrete tears wiped away before anyone could see them. But together, with lots of listening from every person involved in the korero – and a desire to come up with a way forward that worked for everyone – we were able to work out the first, tiny, step forward.  

Isn’t that the only thing we need to work out in these tricky situations? The first, tiny, step forward – not needing to have it all worked out in advance.

Afterwards, as I walked to my car, I had such a flood of relief that I’d faced this tough thing that I’d been so worried to do hours earlier, that I let out the biggest and loudest sigh I’ve exhaled in years. It was if my body was thanking me.

What has Carol’s pearl of wisdom got to do with leadership?

As a leader, you’ll be faced with situations where things aren’t going to plan.  When you want to run a mile, or block out facing the honest, true thing of a tricky situation.

When making like an ostrich feels pretty appealing.

Here are some examples off the top of my head:

  • You have someone in your team whose performance isn’t where it needs to be. You know in your heart that there’s a series of conversations that probably need to be had with them about it. But you’re putting it off because you’re not sure how it will go. You’re worried about their reaction. You’re also worried about your reaction to their reaction, truth be told.
  • You’re a CEO facing tough market conditions. Your results are way off what you planned and consequently, you’d rather take off to Timbuktu than face the next board meeting. You know you’re doing everything in your power to address the things within your control, but you’re feeling bile rising in your throat as you write those board papers.
  • Your colleague is behaving in a way that’s causing friction in your working relationship. There are results you’re both responsible for. They might not be aware of what they’re doing that’s causing friction for you – and it probably isn’t their intention, but it’s problematic (with a capital P). If you don’t talk to them about it, it will probably continue – and what will that lead to?
  • You’ve made a monumental boo-boo that you’re afraid will be a career-limiting move. The proverbial is sure to hit the fan. You’re wondering if hiding the evidence might be the way to go.
  • You’re facing a strategic issue where, for once, you really don’t know what to do next. This is probably excruciatingly uncomfortable for you and maybe even new experience. You’ve tried all the things, you’ve read up on “five ways to overcome x”. But this problem still has you stumped. You’re not sure you can solve this on your own. But you’re afraid to reach out to your boss and your peer team to let them know you don’t have an answer. “They’ll think I’m incompetent. They’ll think I’m {insert the worry you have}… I need to show them I have it all worked out.”

Whatever situation you’re facing today that has you wanting to run a mile –  first, just know that you’re not alone. There are millions of leaders across the globe who want to run and hide too.

Now. Take a slow…deep…breath. Exhale – slow and long.

Ok, it’s now time to make like Carol said.

Front foot this.

Face it.

Lean into this thing you want to avoid.

It won’t go away. Most likely, avoiding it will make it worse. And you never know, by facing into this thing you want to avoid, you might be pleasantly surprised, like I was this week.  

If nothing else, you’ll learn something – about yourself and how to work within your circle of control.

Perhaps, most importantly, you’ll feel proud of yourself about the way you ‘felt the fear, but did it anyway.’

And Carol? If you’re reading this, thank you. You helped me enormously then. And you still help me enormously now, twenty years later. 😊 

7 Comments

  1. Bev Ansell on November 1, 2023 at 1:00 pm

    Perfect timing today, thank you 🙂

  2. Shirlene on September 22, 2023 at 9:18 am

    Carol was right on the mark, thanks for sharing her words of wisdom and your application of them. Very timely.

  3. Ligs Hoffman on September 21, 2023 at 7:46 pm

    As always excellent advice at a time I need it. Love your mahi

  4. Dennis Vogel on September 21, 2023 at 9:27 am

    Suzi,
    People, who can benefit from actions, can be full or partial teammates by giving input & sharing the workload & responsibilities.
    Retreating or refusing to enter seems logical unless problems grow or seem to chase those who run away.
    I’ve been writing about retail marketing to offer products & actions to build functional hope. People have more hope after they create functions to improve positives &/or eliminate negatives. Retailers, consultants, mentors & assistants can guide & offer shields for primary people.
    Some might object to the term “wing-person” since it implies going into violent situations. I’ll use the analogy of Navy firefighting. Two hose teams go into burning compartments. Team 1 extinguishes the fire. Team 2 operates a spray nozzle, so water is a shield against the fire & heat. All involved need to be aware of what each member does & where, plus what could hurt members or block exits. All go in, move evenly & need to leave together unless replacements enter.
    If something isn’t working, members need to shout through the noise.
    Check with each other before, during & after missions. Share an understanding of what happened & what you should make happen. If you can’t make it happen, get out, replan & restart.
    Learn from what worked & didn’t, so you’re more successful next time.
    Thank you for your blog,
    Dennis S. Vogel

  5. Nicky on September 21, 2023 at 9:15 am

    Brilliant read! Needed this today 🙂

  6. Fiona Terry on September 20, 2023 at 11:10 am

    Such wise words, thank you for sharing!

  7. Chris Gladstone on September 20, 2023 at 8:34 am

    Pearls of absolute wisdom. Ngā mihi.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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