It’s amazing what you can learn from a coffee pot…
I am a very rigid person. I like order, structure, and routine. I like ordinary and predictable outcomes. I like going to bed at night knowing that the coffee pot will turn on at a particular time and there will be a fresh pot awaiting me 12 steps across the kitchen floor when I roll out of bed in the morning. I get the same amount of sleep each night and use the alarm clock even when I don’t have to. I like neat and orderly. It’s how my brain is wired. There is a place for everything and everything in its place. There is an efficiency and effectiveness to order and rigidity that makes sense to me. If time is a quantifiable asset, then structure and order all contribute to the effective use of it for me.
The important thing about all this though isn’t what I do to produce those things, but rather the feelings doing them produce in me: Calm, peaceful, centered. In control. I feel better imposing structure on my world. Working each day in the most efficient manner possible. Getting things done quickly and with the least amount of distractions or challenges or unexpected interruptions. I have less worries when things act exactly the way they are meant to. There is no friction or stress, or having to react to the unexpected. Everything in it’s known place and order and location doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing. No risk and very safe. I am in control. There is no fear because I limit the inputs to only things that I can control and predict and order them in such a way that they produce a comfortable outcome for me.
A lot of how I became this way has to do with my raising and the Army. The Army is a very structured world. Time is a huge influencing factor in the Army. You do something from exactly this time to exactly that. There is a set, established standard for everything. We have customs and requirements and rules and structure and discipline and all of those are important things that help ensure an outcome that is successful. We plan and resource and build and work to a precise standard that ensures that everyone knows their part and how all the parts come together in a way that accomplishes the mission. We spend a lot of time ensuring that each part of the Soldier is checked and re-checked until there is very little margin for error. He or she becomes reliable and predictable and a known quantity. And that is exactly what happened to me. I became a reliable quantity. A person who could be counted on. Efficient and controlled and known. Then I sought to impose that control and structure and discipline on my entire life. That is where I went wrong. I became a very rigid thinker and participant in all aspects of my life. There is a best way to do something and I know what that way is. No one else’s way ever got any real consideration.
Up to there though, it sounds pretty good, right? Sounds a lot like what most of us try to do. We try to structure our lives in a way that produces the greatest amount of calm and peace in our world. But what happens when it doesn’t work out that way? What happens when our need for our world to act in a certain way is disrupted by outside influences? What happens then? More importantly, what happens when the need for order, and structure and control actually start interfering and cause the very distress you're trying to avoid? That probably happens to more people than just me.
As I continue to look at my life one thing that has become most evident to me is that in many ways, I am the greatest limiting factor in it. I am the one holding me back. Not the Army or anyone or anything else. I limit me from creating the world I want to live in. And I have done that most often by never considering any other way of doing things except my own. Never looking at, or valuing, any other possible solution. By trying to impose my need for rigidity and control over my life and the people in it, all I really did was lose the opportunity to see them as they really are, and to participate fully in the experience of my world. If it wasn’t going to be done my way, then I didn’t want to play the game. Time to take my toys and go home. I was focused on the trees and lost the forest entirely.
Things have changed a lot for me lately and I am learning to value seeing other points of view. Learning to keep my eye on the outcome and not the process. Slowly I am learning to relax a little and keep my eye on what the end state is. What did I want to have happen? Trying to keep my eye on the forest instead of bumping into every tree. Now it is less important that I be right all the time and a hell of a lot more important that the objective is achieved. And that’s an important thing to consider. Do you want to be right, or win? Do you want to prove your point, prove that your way is the best way, or do you want to actually get something done? Those two things are not the same.
Rigidity and control are actually signs of fearfulness in me and are extremely hard to put down. It has been one of the major challenges of the last 4 months. To let go of a powerful need for control and to relax into seeing the opportunities being presented to me. To take the time to look around and instead of seeing something as failed because it's not being done the way I would do it, actually seeing whether or not it’s working. Is it achieving the end state? If it is working, then why not embrace it, even if it isn't the way I would go about it? Why remain so wrapped up in my particular way of accomplishing it?
All of this was taught to me at 4:30 yesterday morning when I rolled out of bed. I struggled the 12 steps across the kitchen floor and looked at the coffee pot. The little green light that should have been on wasn’t. The pot that should have been filled to the brim with the magical brown elixir that turns my brain on in the morning was still just clear glass. I had neglected to put the pot together the night before. This was officially a crisis!. I would now have to clean out the pot from the previous day, and then fill it with grounds and water and then turn it on and wait 10 minutes before I could take my first sip of the liquid jet fuel that wakes me up each day. This was bad! I stood there for a second in the light of the kitchen stove in shock. I felt a little tiny wave of anger and frustration well up in me…..I had not followed my proscribed routine the night prior and now something bad had happened. Now the outcome was different than I wanted. And then suddenly the anger and frustration disappeared. Poof. Gone. And I started to laugh…quietly because it was 4:30 am, but laugh nonetheless. Something I wouldn’t have done before. I laughed at myself for forgetting, and put the pot together and set it to doing it's thing. About 10 minutes later, sipping my first cup of the day, I had to smile a little at how far I had come. I had found humor and laughter where I used to find anger and frustration. I had my coffee and life was good.
How do my coffee woes apply to leadership? The Army has gone through a large sea-change in how it develops leaders over the last 10 years. There is a recognition that the very rigidity and control and attention to detail and meticulous planning and slavish adherence to only one way of thinking that I grew up with also has some serious limitations. Now the idea is to build adaptive and creative thinking Soldiers and leaders able to take advantage of opportunities as the arise, and not get so locked in on only one way of doing things. Leaders able to see the forest through the trees. Leaders able to look at multiple courses of action and truly find the right one for the situation they face. While the baseline requirements of discipline and attention to detail and focus on the skills and requirements of the mission remain, we are now seeing adaptability and flexibility of thought and an understanding of the big picture that this war has required. So maybe the lesson learned standing at the coffee pot does have some merit. Leaders need to be able to see beyond the immediate problem and not get wrapped up in the minutia. That's what managers do. Leaders need to have a vision and an end-state. And then they must remain flexible enough to keep track of it when the plan or routine changes.
All of which came to me very very early yesterday morning as I watched my coffee pot slowly fill up.....
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.