Organization & Leadership Consulting

The Value of Surprises


Last week I wrote about the habits of successful leaders and I suggested leaders spend time thinking. Strategy, assessment, reflecting on the organization’s culture, problem-solving, mentoring, learning new skills, are all invariably worthy of time spent in deep thought. I would like to add a less obvious subject to this unassailable list: surprises.

Leaders who wish to succeed at the highest levels are well served by continually cataloging and analyzing the surprises they encounter. Noting, for example, the reaction of an employee to a new process implementation, or observing a team’s inability to solve a problem you thought was easily within their reach, or heeding your shock over a new hire who fails to integrate into the company. These unexpected events are often harbingers of significant cultural assumptions that are operating inconspicuously beneath the surface.


I have noted before in this blog that the task of leadership is primarily about shaping the culture of the organization or group. Surprises are the canary in the cultural mine that serve as early warnings of problems. An employee who has difficulty managing the change to a new process or procedure may be an indicator that there are important values that are competing against one another. Solve this underlying values issue and you have solved not just the symptom but a host of problems that would have occurred down the line.

A team that struggles over something that you felt was a “gimme” may be a herald to significant interpersonal or cultural communication difficulties that beg to be confronted. The new hire who was judged to be supremely gifted over all the other candidates and yet fails to integrate may be the first sign that there is a cultural misalignment that is silently robbing your productivity.

Surprises are invaluable learning opportunities for great leaders. Plan to take a few moments this week to take stock of your latest surprises. Chasing down their root causes will yield a rich harvest in terms of productivity and return on investment as you lead your world class organizational culture.


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