The Advantage of Strategic Disadvantage
The bluebirds emptied their nest, yesterday. Every year we watch the egg to flight ritual. One year we saw the young leave. This year we found one quaking in the grass.
Mother bluebird usually sits on the eggs while father bluebird feeds her and stands guard atop their box-shaped house. Eventually, we hear empty-bellied babies hungrily squawking. Both parents bring food and stand guard. Their commitment, discipline, and loyalty inspire.
Feeding grows nearly frantic till one day mother stands on their slanted roof holding a tasty bug in plain view. Yellow beaks cry out, complaining. Eventual she gives in.
Both mom and dad feed and guard less and less.
They swoop past their gawking, nest-bound young, providing glimpses of glorious flight. They offer food but don’t give it. They bring sour berries instead of juicy bugs.
They don’t stand atop the house much anymore. They perch, in plain view, about fifty yards away. Eventually, after much complaint and coaxing, former eggs fly. Every year it’s the same.
Disadvantage and distance motivate flight.
In praise of disadvantage:
Ease and comfort are the enemies of growth. On the other hand, strategic disadvantage is advantageous. Make things harder not easier. Uncomfortable challenges provide emerging leaders opportunities to rise up, develop new abilities, and eventually take flight on their own.
Welcome difficulties don’t resist. Step out of the nest. You’ll drop toward the ground, bang into things, and ungracefully flap. But eventually, you’ll fly. Trust your gifts.
Leadership development bluebird style:
- Create stress.
- Provide less expect more.
- Stand nearby but don’t hover.
- Model behaviors.
- Let them struggle. Ungraceful flight is better than no flight.
New opportunities that test skills and challenge abilities create advantageous stress. Baby bluebirds fly because they live in a fly or die world.
How can leaders create disadvantages that help the nest-bound take flight?
When does help become a disadvantage?
stretching with appropriate scaffolding.
We often do one or the other… not good.
Easier said than done.
I once asked a successful CEO, now retired, about letting and watching people make their own mistakes. He said it was the most difficult thing he had to learn. Letting go is hard to do.
Our inclination is to be helpful. It’s a healthy inclination…but in some situations… helpful, as in giving aid, isn’t helpful.
We gave aid:
The bird in the picture ended up huddled in the grass against our house. It was dark. The neighbors have cats. We decided to help – as in protect – I carefully picked him up and took him back to his nest and closed the door. This morning, after a small meal provided by one of his parents, he flew off.
He failed long enough…we gave him a chance to succeed, by helping him.
Just to toss out another dimension.. 🙂
Great illustration with application!
Thank you Diana!
This is a decent strategy for school teachers too. My students will thank you this next semester (at the end, not the begining). 😉
It’s hard not to get angry at those who let us struggle when they could help… ouch
Help becomes a disadvantage when an individual has been appointed to a position based on talent and ability and then the powers that be betray that initial appointment by not letting go and letting them at it within a definitive time-scale in order for them to really get to grips with stamping their own personalised mark on the role ……
The best disadvantage they could offer is to go off about their own work and let others do theirs, in the only way they can, their own way and judge each on their results …….
“The best disadvantage they could offer is to go off about their own work and let others do theirs, in the only way they can, their own way and judge each on their results”
Exactly! With a little support and encouragement thrown in.
Adding “position” to the conversation is wonderful. Thanks for sharing your insights.
I remember one job I had where the guy leaving said he felt bad that he left something hanging that was probably going to fail after he left. He felt like he was hanging me out to dry.
Let me tell you that project did NOT fail…no one helped me…I worked my butt off. It was hard but a good thing.
Perhaps knowing when to ask for help is part of this discussion?
Pat Lencioni, in his book titled Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, points out that the best way to bring people together and to have them grow, is to give them a crisis (read: “strategic disadvantage”).
A strategic disadvantage doesn’t have to be about letting go; it can be about allowing each individual play their role, grow into their role, with support. Bluebirds don’t speak human, but couldn’t you say that sitting 50 yards away is Bluebird talk for, “I’m right here. And I know you can do it. Come on out. Fly!”
It’s not so much a letting go as a welcome into a new stage.
It’s a lot easier for me to watch my children grow for me than for my husband. He watches them leave childhood. I watch them arrive into adulthood. (It’s not quite that black-and-white, but you get the gist).
Lynn, I so agree with you on the last paragraph ….. maybe that is why some personalities find it easier to let others get on with the job of doing what they have to do in the way that they do it, having the faith that when and if they need help and support they will cast you one of them looks, put a hand on your shoulder looking for a chat or shout for help knowing that it is ok to do so …….. we create independence knowing that it is achieved through interdependence and occasionally we all mess up ! C’est la vie 🙂
(whisper: how did you know I am French? C’est la vie, indeed!)
😉 The things we know, without knowing we know, and to be honest, I didn’t really know, a bientot !
Great contrast between letting go vs. allowing others to grow. It’s not what is going away so much as what is coming…not the old but the new. Very helpful.
I agree that comfort and ease are enemies to progress. Leaders should create challenge that help the nest-bound take flight. When help makes one complacent, it becomes disadvantage.Leaders should provide guidance but not support. Let people learn through experiences. Strategic disadvantage compels people to think. This compulsion increases options. But strategic advantage makes people complacent and cozy. They take things granted. And that is the root cause of growth. so, creating a situation, that actually makes one to dig out his abilities and strength is the best strategy to make one matured and wise.
There’s a huge difference between helping by offering suggestions and helping by doing it for them. You remind me that we can be hands-off and still help.
“Guidance but not support,” I take that as not doing for them.
Thank you, Dan. This post was very encouraging to me this morning. I know your writing is geared toward the business world, but it often helps me in my personal life. Thank you.
It’s great how leadership concepts apply is so many contexts…cheers
Wonderful allegory Dan, well done, so many applications.
Create stress by inquiringly pointing out disconnects/dischord with vision.
Nothing creates a sense of urgency like and empty stomach, would that we could transfer that to an empty mind! Where’s that chocolate?
As I read, I thought…help people know they don’t know…then they can come to know. Thanks Doc.
I liked “glimpses of glorious flight”. What’s the saying, ‘its hard to soar like an eagle when you are flying with turkeys..?’ I hope the little bird in the grass flew away like his siblings.
He took flight this morning after a small meal provided by his parents.
Hi everyone! This is a wonderful post. Since I’m still in the middle of child rearing, I also see a lot of similarities like many others have posted. Essentially, it seems to me that in areas like parenting or managment, it’s all about (or should be) helping others towards their own personal developement…..relational?
“Leadership development bluebird style” describes one (out of a long line of none :-D) such type of leadership styles I had the pleasure of working under. It was interesting to learn that I was capable of being interdependant versus only being allowed to be completely dependant upon someone else’s ideas/directions/agenda. I learned a lot about myself and others during that time.
Thanks again for the post! I’m always challenged when I read them.
Thanks for sharing your story Christina. It’s always a pleasure to see readers adapting and adopting their own ideas after reading these posts.
Best to you as you lead your family.
Nice! I love this one!
Thanks again Dan, you always help us think outside the box. In the Army we do this all the time and it is how we grow new leaders.
I frequently hear great stories of leadership development within the armed forces.
tough balance, too much stress and your little birds fly away to new homes
Well said! Plenty of reward and recognition are part of this mix.
great post Dan,
Thinking about how the parent blue birds knew when the little ones were ready for the new challenge of flight cause me to think that up coming leaders do not always realize that they have the wings to fly and its our job to model what it looks like to fly which should excite and encourage the plunge into new space…..
Thanks for introducing the challenging topic of knowing when people are ready for new challenges. I’ve blown that one a few times.
I like the progression approach rather than a giant leap. However, to keep with the bluebird metaphor, nest-bound to flight is a giant leap.
Perhaps a series of successful small steps indicates it’s “giant leap” time.
Mom and dad made baby bluebirds hungry… ???
Dan, good stuff! I couldn’t help but think how important this is for parents to create some difficulty and challenge for our kids. Give them opportunities to grow and shine! In general I think we allow our kids to grow up to fast in some ways but not grow up fast enough in other ways!
So I am going to create some challenge for my kids now!
Thank you Wade.
Your comment reminded me that my parents made me pay for my first bike. I remember going to the store, picking it out, and putting it on layaway. I went home to do chores on the farm until the day finally arrived when I had enough cash to pay off my bike and bring it home.