Leadership is a choice between two roads

Decades ago the poet Robert Frost wrote a wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken. It begins by describing a choice a traveler must make when faced with a fork in the road. Frost’s poem begins with:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

It's a wonderful poem, and it illustrates an important type of choice presented to every leader. Namely, to stick with a well-worn path, or try something different. As the key decision makers, we move from one “fork in road” to the next every day. 

Leadership is all about decisions.

One challenge, and often the most seductive fork in the road, is choosing between reacting or responding to information.

Both a reaction and a response are normal, but which is more productive?

It depends on the situation.

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Reactions

Reactions occur quickly, often instinctively, with limited prior thought or consideration of consequences. If we are not careful, many of us have emotionally-fueled reactions based on wounds, rather than chiseled wisdom.

We come to a “fork in the road” that requires a decision and we instantly make a choice.

The resulting joy or pain from our choice affects our relationships, productivity, and profits.

Responses

In contrast, responses are reactions delayed so information can be processed. 

A leader delays words or actions to ask questions, gather facts, consider the nuances of the situation, and formulate a choice of the best path to take at a fork in the road.

Knowing the difference

Reacting often leads to mistakes based on assumptions. In contrast, responses connect past, present, and future data to validate or replace assumptions. The result is often a much better road to travel.

Be especially wary of stubbornness or what can be called “strongholds". These are situations where we allow partial-truths to embed themselves in our brain as habitual reactions to certain types of situations and people. 

Strongholds lock us in, blind us to the truth, and emotionally force us to choose the wrong road.

Our true destinations can only be reached when we develop good habits that give us balance in life, such as owning our own mistakes and weaknesses. 

Examples

Are you reacting to problems or responding to them? Usually when I pose the same question to a leader, they already know the answer.

If you're not sure, here's a few examples. Ask yourself, are you trying to:

  1. Be a role model by sacrificing integrity, taking shortcuts, and rushing every decision?
  2. Build someone up by tearing them down?
  3. Heal wounds by being judgmental, bearing grudges, and seeking revenge?
  4. Serve others by focusing primarily on your own wants?
  5. Consistently be your best when you are mostly spontaneous?
  6. Experience deep meaning by being led by your desires rather than serving a cause greater than yourself?
  7. Develop relationships and commitment through hate and/or neglect?

This is a "Road of Reactions", all too often chosen by leaders unaware of their bad habits. This leads to a lot of unnecessary drama, lost productivity, wasted time, millions in losses, stress, and other damage.

I encourage you to take the “Road Not Taken” by most leaders. Develop habits of wisdom chiseled through your life experiences. Whenever a problem or a crisis rears its head, take some time to think critically about the situation as a whole. Only then will you choose the “Road of Responses” more often and reach your desired destinations easier, faster, and in more fulfilling ways.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost in its entirety is:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

You are choosing one road or the other constantly every day.

The question is: Are you choosing to respond calmly and reasonably, or are you reacting based on bad habits?