Management Fires burn faster uphill


You see James on the 8th-floor cafeteria. You haven’t seen him in weeks which is fine because while you’ve worked together for years, your paths are currently not intersecting.

“Hey, James.”

“Hey! Long-time, I was just thinking about you.”

“Really, why?”

“Randy just called you out in the launch meeting. He said the project was a month behind. Everything ok?”

In your head, before James reaches the end of his statement, you can already feel the response. It’s not the emotional reaction to Randy calling you out, and it’s not the product implications of a month delay. It’s a feeling that you’ve seen this precise situation before and you know precisely how it will play out… but it’s still a feeling.

I’m talking about spidey-sense.

Understanding Spidey-Sense

Spidey-sense is real-time wisdom. You build wisdom though experiences, small and large. These experiences left you with impressions, opinions, and lessons. These experiences are shared with humans and their differences of opinion from nuanced to shocking. However, these differences expand your understanding and teach you lessons. Their approach, attitude, emotion, and words. You observe it all, continue to learn, and carefully index and file away the lessons.

As this corpus of knowledge grows, your brain discovers delicious patterns. When this situation X occurs, I often observe that resulting situation Y, weirdly, always happens a month later. Huh. These collected, observed patterns compile nicely into judgment.1 Over time and with practice, you become comfortable with rendering a considered decision based on this judgment when presented with a situation. You can explain and defend your reasoning because you’ve seen this situation 42 times. You’ve seen these types of humans act in this situation, and you understand possible outcomes. Your decision is defensible. You can clearly explain it. Are you right? Sometimes. Only time will tell, but in either case, you observe the results and impact of your decision, learn, and the cycle repeats.

The prior two paragraphs are the primary reason that universities don’t offer substantive degrees in leadership. Most of the essential skills required to be an effective leader are acquired and built by deliberately experiencing the seemingly infinite canvas that is the workday… for years.

Wait, what? That’s the Advice? Live Life? Thanks, Rands.

Hold on.

Spidey-sense is real-time wisdom. At some point in collecting experiences, lessons, observations, people, personalities, and words, you’ll begin to apply this pattern matching process instinctively… all the time. More so in leadership, because you have access to more information and will be required to use that information to make large critical decisions quickly… all the time.2

Spidey-sense is not paranoia. They’re related, and often spidey-sense is the reason a human becomes paranoid, but paranoia is fueled by fear. It’s an impending sense of doom that one can not control. Spidey-sense is a sudden question in the back of your brain, Wait, what?

Spidey-sense is a hunch discovered when you’re tasting soup. It’s your experience speaking… loudly. A moment of inspiration. Of intuition. It feels like magic because the insight arrives instantly appears out of nowhere, and that’s why you should trust it.

Trusting Spidey-Sense

At a prior gig, we saw unexpected attrition. The company was growing at a nice clip; our outlook was rosy, but every month there was regretted unexpected attrition. As these humans left, we asked them why they were leaving, and confusingly we could not discover a pattern.

After three months, I started a spreadsheet and titled it “Spidey-Sense.” At my staff meeting, I explained:

“This is the spidey-sense spreadsheet. If something about someone who works with you seems off. I want to you add them to this spreadsheet. Don’t think about it. Just add them. Reasons are optional. We’ll review them each week.

Their stares. They were blank.

“Do you suspect burnout? Add them. Are they consistently missing 1:1s? Add them. Is something just not right? Add them.”

Three names were added that week — two with good reasoning. The third’s explanation was blank. The reasoning: Something is up, and I don’t know what.

The following week one more was added sans explanation, and the prior third had more color. She’s bored. I can just sense it. Ok, bored we can work with.

We maintained the Spidey-sense spreadsheet for six months. In time, all new additions were paired with an explanation because we slowly developed a language around intuition. We started to see the intricate patterns of burnout, boredom, personality clashes, and other performance issues. Many humans on this list were removed with no action on our part. Spidey-sense proved wrong. However, the majority of the employees we added to that spreadsheet captured early warning signs and were crucial to proactively acting rather than reactively damage-controlling. Yes, many humans still left the company, but they did so in plain sight. There were fewer surprises.

Something is Up, and I Don’t Know What

Spidey-sense is a feeling. It’s why we don’t initially trust it because leadership is a well-defined set of concrete principles you follow to maximize you and your team’s effectiveness.

Gross. Wrong. Yuck. Ok, there’s truth in those dull words. Do choose a set of principles and do demonstrate them via your behaviors. However, speaking as a leader of many years, leadership is equal parts following a well-defined set of principles and making split-second decisions in the heat of battle with little to no actual information.

Spidey-sense is a feeling. You might be hesitant to heed it because you can’t tell where it came from. You might attempt to ignore it because the difference between a feeling inspired by hard-earned wisdom and one inspired by an irrational emotion feel the same. They aren’t, but the only way you’re going to learn the difference is by first listening then acting.

  1. It’s full of bias, but then again, so is your brain. 
  2. The colorful phrase is “shit rolls downhill.” The inversion of that statement is also true: “fires burn faster uphill.” The further you are up the organizational chart, the further you are up the hill, the more fuel there is for the fire. Teams often successful extinguish small fires before you ever see them, but the ones that get to you are burning, and they are burning hot and often unstoppable. 

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3 Responses

  1. Pamela Isham 5 years ago

    Thanks for another great leadership insight. Also, reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” that also highlights the pros and cons of what you call “spidey-sense.”

    The biggest pitfall I see is in unconscious bias based on race/gender/sexual orientation/abilities/etc., which is based in the “irrational emotion” that you highlight above.