From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

The Scoutmaster and the Gunslinger

Our mission is to gain true discernment of the contraries, first as contraries, but then as poles of unity.

Hermann Hesse

When the two top people at the helm of the large insurance company realized that their inability to work together was a problem—not just for them, but for the whole organization— it was almost too late. They found themselves at that point best described in nautical terms as being in extremism. That’s when only radical, correct and immediate action by both ships will avoid a collision. I was doing some intensive leadership training for their company when they asked for help. Here’s what happened:

The chief executive officer, Brad, had this to say about his chief operating officer, Miles: “The guy’s headstrong. Out of control. Always going off half-cocked and doing stuff we have to bail ourselves out of. It’s scary for me to even think about letting him get close to the budget. If he were in charge, we’d never be able to do the same thing twice in a row. We’d be jumping off cliffs and figuring out what to do on the way down. Drives me crazy! See if you can fix him, please . . .”

Meanwhile surprise, surprise—Miles, the chief operating officer, was having a tough time with Brad. “He’s s-o s-l-o-w to take action. I get cobwebs on the proposals I make before he even reads them. He always has 16 reasons why we can’t do it, and by the time we get him on board, the moment has passed us by. Drives me crazy! Get him off my back, please.”

Although they were able to conduct themselves in a professional manner in public and maintained a thin veneer of friendliness, the strains between them had leaked down and out to the rest of the company—in some cases, aided and abetted by their own gossip. As a result, staff were forced to take sides. “Are you with Brad or are you with Miles?”

After a brief conversation with each of them, they agreed that it was time to bury the hatchet and asked for some assistance. “Let’s go off in a room at a nearby conference center and lock the door until this thing gets resolved,” I suggested.

They both came into the room smiling but a little nervous. “Okay,” I said, “first of all, you have to understand the huge negative impact your unresolved stuff is having on your company. You have each lost a lot of respect out there, even from the people who agree with you. The two of you both think—although you would never say it out loud—that the only solution is to have one of you go away, and you are each plotting how that might be expedited.

“Here’s the truth as I see it,” I continued. “Unless you find a way to regain mutual trust and respect, this whole company is in jeopardy. Are you willing to pursue that goal?”

They both said yes. “How do we do it?”

“First, you need to understand that each of you represents not a problem to be solved, but one end of a polarity that must be managed. Let’s take a few minutes to discover how that plays out with the two of you.”

In the next hour, Brad found out that he had been trying all his life to be a good person. He had, in fact, been a national leader in the Boy Scouts. His highest values were tied to dependability, consistency, preparation, caution and responsibility. Miles, on the other hand, had grown up getting his rewards from being creative, innovative, quick, energetic, light-hearted and inspirational.

Using an approach adapted from Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management, I invited each of them to give his way of operating a name, based on some character from literature or history. Brad said, “Mine’s easy! It’s got to be the Scoutmaster! I’ve been trying to be better than Miles and showing him how he should be doing things. It’s my job as the Scoutmaster to keep everybody— especially Miles—headed in the right direction and out of trouble.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” said Miles. “How about this for me: the Gunslinger? I’m quick on the trigger, too quick a lot of the time. Impulsive. That leads to a certain amount of chaos, which is fine for me and a few others, but wreaks havoc on the organization. I’ve been subtly trying to show Brad up, make him look slow and out-of-date.”

This was a moment of truth. They would either rise to the necessary levels of courage, authenticity and leadership or slide back into their self-protective patterns. Bless their hearts, they both stepped into the abyss, let go and reached for something heretofore unseen and unknown.

“I’m sorry, Miles, that I’ve been such a know-it-all with you and made you wrong so often. I especially apologize for gossiping about you to your peers.”

“Me, too, Brad. I’m sorry that I’ve been so hard to get along with, showing you up with my sarcastic jokes and smirking at you behind your back to my buddies.”

The forgiveness that was needed was released by each of them to the other, along with a few tears of relief and joy. This was a holy moment. Electricity in the air. Hearts beating faster. They hugged each other.

After a few minutes, it was time to move it to the organizational level. I suggested that what was needed was an organization that had mastered both of these ways of operating; that if either of them had somehow “won” the fight and managed to impose his particular way of operating on the whole organization, that the company would have been in big trouble fast.

They agreed to shift their efforts from trying to defeat the other person to actually supporting him, looking for ways to strengthen him, making him more powerful, more effective. They predicted ways they would sabotage this agreement and determined what they would do when that happened. They both pledged to stop gossiping as of that moment and agreed to meet regularly for the next three months to keep tabs on how they were doing.

Talk about courage. The next day they called a meeting of the senior leadership team. Brad went in wearing his big Scoutmaster’s hat, Miles wearing a cowboy hat and a set of his eight-year-old son’s six-guns. Slowly and carefully, the two of them walked the group through their whole interaction, taking time to explain in detail the most embarrassing stuff. The group was astounded. They laughed together. They cried a little. They gave them a standing ovation at the end. The results were instantaneous and striking.

Customers noticed the difference. The most prescient of all indicators, the executive secretaries, noticed the difference. Their wives noticed. The other officers in the holding company noticed. They have worked through several conflicts since then that, by their admission, would have stopped the wagon before. And miraculously, Brad, the uptight Boy Scout, has loosened up to the point that he brought the house down at a recent employee gathering. Miles, meanwhile, has been given—and is taking— responsibility for the budget.

The most amazing outcome of this example of courage and leadership occurred last week when Brad gathered his leadership team and announced, “This is my last year here. I’ll be retiring at the end of next year. I know you have been wondering who I would be recommending to the board for my replacement as CEO. I am delighted and somewhat surprised to say that it will be Miles. And it is with a real sense of confidence and optimism that I do this, knowing that he has what it takes to lead this company into the future.”

It’s amazing what a little courage in the right place at the right time can accomplish.

John Scherer

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