Three Leadership Lessons from the Polar Vortex

Unlike the rest of the CultureSync team, I make my home in suburban Chicago. That means I’ve been in the heart of the Polar Vortex. 

Here’s what it was like: temperatures were well below zero, the heaviest snow was accompanied by thunder, and we rushed around getting as many errands done as possible ahead of time. It also meant a cancelled trip, opportunities to lend a hand to neighbors, and creative clothing choices when braving the cold. The Polar Vortex even presented a few leadership lessons.

On a dog walk, I witnessed a neighbor continually getting her car stuck in the snow as she attempted to drive it down the unplowed alley. When I first walked past her, she was making some progress. When I got back home after a speedy walk around the block, she had barely inched forward. 

This young driver was fortunate to have a passenger in the car. Unfortunately it was her mother. Daughter would drive a few feet, get stuck, and mom would climb back out of the car into a foot of snow and scrape snow out of the car’s path using an ice scraper. She’d get a few more feet down the alley and get the car moored in more snow.

As the daughter overturned her steering wheel, she’d rev her engine and send her tires into a wild spin. If you’ve ever been responsible for getting your car through the snow you might have learned the lesson she was learning: spinning tires create more ice and reduce already precious traction. It’s a bad idea.

Once the dog was inside, I rushed out to help.

It started with coaching: “don’t turn your wheels so sharply,” “don’t rev the engine so fast,” and “let’s get you into the half of the alley that had been plowed.” Once the coaching was done, mom and I could concentrate on pushing the small car free. We used a rocking motion: push a little forward, allow the car to rock back, use the gaining momentum to push the car a little harder the next time, push, rock, push, rock, push, success.


As the young driver made her way into the plowed part of the alley and gained her own traction, she started to slow the car to wait for her mother. After a momentary panic that all of our good work was about to be undone, we shouted for her to continue out onto the (slightly) clearer street. Daughter got on to solid ground, mom trotted to catch up, and they got to the pharmacy to pick up the necessary prescriptions for the grandmother safely at home.

What are the leadership lessons here?

1. Plan ahead and have the right tools on hand.

News sources across the world were predicting huge snow falls, artic cold, and blowing wind. We had days of warning. Planning ahead might have resulted in: picking up prescription a day earlier, having a shovel and kitty litter in the car, or arranging for someone with a larger vehicle to pick up the prescription.

In your organization, what are the big disruptions that your team is telling you are coming this year? Are you planning enough in advance so that you have the tools, resources, and relationships in place when the disruption occurs? If not, get started now by downloading and creating a 90-day Micro Strategy

2. Change is easy – if the conditions and pace are right.

Our young driver was aiming for heroic change and so she was driving hard. Her front axle was cranked hard towards the cleared alley and she was revving her engines. You could see it in how she held herself behind the wheel: she was determined to conquer the disruption. All of that determination, drive and intensity were actually making the situation worse. The alley was getting icier below her car, she was forcing more snow up under her car, and she was getting more stuck.

We do this in organizations, too. We drive hard for change, we push on multiple systems at the same time, we wake up each morning with determination that can be seen in our faces. And so we make change more difficult than it needs to be. This is one of the big lessons from Tribal Leadership. We think cultural change is hard. The truth is, it isn’t. You have to know where to start and then you have to take incremental steps towards where you want to be. 

This is just part of what we’ll cover in the 2014 Tribal Leadership Intensive starting on January 28.

3. Once change has begun, keep moving forward.

Change has a momentum to it. The young driver’s mom and I used momentum (coupled with a nice, slow even speed and slightly turned wheels), to rock the car out of its snow trap. Once the car was moving, it was important that it keep moving. That meant mom had to catch up to the car.

Change in organizations is like that as well. Once the change is happening in organizations, people have to choose whether they are going to catch up to the change – or not. The organization cannot stop and wait for every late adopter. Conditions just won’t allow it. For those who don’t want to work hard enough to catch up, the organization moves forward without them.

For those individuals that need a little support to catch up – and are willing to do the work to do so – coaching can go a long way.

4. Bonus lesson: Beware of Talking Heads

Did you notice the Talking heads using the Polar Vortex to decry global warming? In their ongoing efforts to de-credit the science behind global climate change, they apparently choose to ignore the news about the heat wave in Australia.

This happens in our organizations, too. The Talking Heads come up with a favorite (and usually contrary) point of view to de-credit both the need for and evidence of change. They move through the actual and virtual hallways looking for opportunities to block progress being made. They’re like a fictional snow gremlin who throws more snow under the car even as we’re shoveling it out.

Once you’ve identified the Talking Heads discrediting the changes in your organization, you can try to encourage them back into the tribe through intense coaching methods. If it doesn’t work, you might need to set them free.

There can be a lot of leadership lessons in a big event like a Polar Vortex when we keep our eyes and ears open. When they happen, the lessons are fast, intense, and they hit us like a ton of bricks. One big one that didn’t get covered above, is that even when the actions will be imperfect, it’s far better to take action than not. Our young driver and her mom got into the car, they forged their way down the alley, and they made it to the pharmacy. The struggles and lessons learned were part of their progress.

So to in our organizations, we need to take action to change our cultures. Those actions always provide opportunities to learn something that will make the next action more effective, efficient, and productive. Sometimes, we make our way down the snowy alleys of change one tire circumference at a time. Sometimes we get stuck. When we get stuck a helping hand, the right set of tools, and creating momentum will pull our organizations forward.

What are the leadership lessons you discovered in the recent Polar Vortex?





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