By Tim Hayes []

It may be the most counterintuitive principle of leadership, but it’s unmistakably the right thing to do.

Imagine you’re in love, you are completely dedicated to your partner, everything you think, say, and do flows from and supports that commitment.  Then one day you shift gears, drop that partner and devote everything you can to a different partner.  Few people would welcome – much less actively plan for and assume it was coming – such an abrupt and complete shifting of alliances and dedication.

Yet that is exactly what the best leaders do.  If they want to lead healthy organizations, that is.

Many years ago, I worked as a district spokesperson for a state Transportation Department.  Our office was far from the state capital, nestled comfortably in the softly rolling, quietly imposing mountains of the Northeast.  The Secretary of Transportation at that point in time was a tremendous engineer, who cut a fairly intimidating presence.  He scared the wits out of me at first, frankly.  But as I got to interact with him more, I realized what a brilliant leader he truly was.

He took over a department at the state level that had been derided, abused, and pretty well hated by the taxpaying constituents.  But in the span of a year, he had snapped that department to attention through fresh thinking, clear lines of reporting, active discipline and rewards as appropriate, and a management philosophy that he communicated in no uncertain terms:  We must dedicate 100% of our efforts toward our defined goals, while realizing that those goals may change tomorrow.

It took a long time for my brain to fully wrap itself around that notion.  If we suspect that the goals we’re working toward today may disappear tomorrow, why would we waste our energy pursuing them?  Doesn’t that mean those goals were not the right ones in the first place?  Who’s to say that these new goals won’t meet the same fate?

Then came “Keep Our State Beautiful.”

For years, roadside litter had been battled solely by threats of arrest and fines.  Signage could be found along Interstate highways and local byways to this effect.  Yet nobody took it seriously.  The police have better ways to spend their time than on stakeouts to catch litterbugs.

So the Secretary decided to change course, instituting “Keep Our State Beautiful,” a citizen-involvement program to recruit scout troops, community organizations, and individuals to participate in a one-day statewide roadside litter pickup effort.  Responsibility to manage this program in the district fell to me, and through active school assembly outreach, partnering with a local convenience store to provide participants with a free hot dog and drink, and empowering key designees at the county level, our district led the state in both the number of participants and the amount of trash cleaned.  And remember, we were nowhere near the state’s major metropolitan centers. 

The Secretary himself made a special visit to our district to help with the cleanup, and even enjoyed a free hot dog alongside a bunch of kids.  That image remains a favorite career moment for me.

The old way had failed.  Gears were shifted abruptly.  The new way succeeded wildly.  What I learned was that, in business or in government, people do their best to determine a direction toward success.  But the world is not a static place.  Situations and priorities and opportunities and obstacles all change.  So sometimes you do need to scrap your plans and chart a new course.  After all, nimble beats numb.

Copyright 2010 Transverse Park Productions LLC