“The Cheese Investigation” And The Perils of Clinging to Past Success

It’s very tempting to hold on to our past victories, and when the opportunity arises, to bring them into the present. The positive emotion we associate with these events becomes a filter for our current experiences. We set about attempting to replicate our success by framing problems to fit our previous solution. In other circumstances we might attempt to hide our anxiety or fear of being perceived as incompetent by relating these stories to others in hope that they will trust our judgement.

“During my time at this company…”

“I remember when we faced a similar challenge…”

“In my experience this is the best way to…”

“I’ve seen this story before and this is what we need to do…”

Do you notice these words, or others like them, in your conversations? Have you observed situations where you or others amplify or alter the scope a problem to fit a previous experience? What about the ‘snap answer’ because you (or they) have “been there and done that”? To put this in more practical terms; do you know leaders who are always trying to relive that one big career success?

While it is valuable to bring the things we have learned into the context of our daily challenges there are, as Captain Queeg so aptly and somewhat dramatically demonstrates, serious potential downsides if we take this too far.

  • When we cling to our past success we steal from the present. We see the situation as we want it to be, not as it is. Rather than being open we move to judgement, limiting our options. We risk prescribing without fully diagnosing and may end up doing more harm than good.

    “This looks to me like exactly the same situation.”

  • When we cling to our past success we exclude the experiences and perspective of others. Our mental filter leads us to premature certainty about the nature of the question and the answer so we shut out other options. Others on the team become frustrated when their ideas or suggestions are shot down with stories and solutions from our personal history.

    “Gentlemen you’ve spent the entire night and accomplished nothing while I’ve thought the whole thing out very clearly.”

  • When we cling to our past success we put a barrier between ourselves and others. Repeatedly sharing stories of the big project, big problem, big deal, big payday or how many years spent doing X or Y feels like posturing. People become frustrated with the leader’s impenetrable bias and begin to lose trust, hide problems and disengage.

    “Back in ’37 when I was a lowly ensign on a cruiser…5 lbs of cheese was missing.”

  • When we cling to our past success we damage our credibility. As it becomes clear a leader is aspiring to recreate previous victories at the expense of the present organization, members of the team will begin to lose confidence and may behave with passive aggression or seek ways to undermine the leader’s efforts.

    “Can’t you see what he’s doing? He’s reenacting the big triumph of his career.

Applying lessons learned along our journey can be helpful in facing today’s problems. As a leader it is important to leave room for new ideas, fresh perspectives and other means of achieving the goal. We can earn the respect of others by being open and approaching each challenge with a collaborative and creative approach that incorporates the best of the past and present.

Our history can be a useful frame of reference but is best applied with a good dose of mindfulness, humility and flexibility.

The harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there’s gold in letting go of them.
— John Seely Brown

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Leadership Rocket Science


“If you’re a leader, your whole reason for living is to help human beings develop—to really develop people and make work a place that’s energetic and exciting and a growth opportunity, whether you’re running a Housekeeping Department or Google. I mean, this is not rocket science. It’s not even a shadow of rocket science. You’re in the people-development business. If you take a leadership job, you do people. Period. It’s what you do.”

Tom Peters – September 2014 – McKinsey Quarterly.

My first thought…

The purpose of leadership is simple!

My second thought…

The process of leadership is hard work.

If I understand the essence of Tom’s message it would be that the impact of your leadership is directly related to your effectiveness in developing people.

So how do you develop the skills you need to succeed in the “people-development business”?

Consider these steps to get you started:

  • Get clear on your purpose – Are people at the center of your leadership focus? Is this priority reflected in how and where you spend your time?
  • Become a student of human behavior – Do you observe the people in your organization? Are you aware of the underlying emotions reflected in their behavior?
  • Master the art of communication - Are you attentive to the impact of your words? Do you practice effective listening?
  • Commit to self-awareness - How often do you seek feedback on your leadership? Do people feel comfortable sharing their opinion in your presence?
  • Invest in learning and development - Do you invest in your own development? Do you invest time to identify and create developmental opportunities for others?
  • Challenge perceived limitations – Do you help people get out of their comfort zone to realize and release their potential? Do you provide a compelling vision?
  • Recognize the strengths in others – Are you attempting to align people with work that leverages their strengths? Do you set people up for success?
  • Leverage available resources – Do you take advantage of the experts, books, assessments and other tools that can help you understand and develop people?

You have an amazing opportunity to impact lives for good.

To help make work meaningful, challenging and full of great stories.

No matter where you are.

That’s what leaders do.

So go build your rocket.

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