ISSUE 58 ISSN 1712-468
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Digging Ditches in the Desert

Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character.
But if you must be without one, be without the strategy

Norman Schwarzkopf

Today I want to share with you the story of three businessmen who lived about 2800 years ago.

One had an issue with a corrupt vendor who refused to honor his supply schedule. The vendor carried some serious clout so the businessman entered into a joint venture arrangement with two other businessmen in an attempt to take out the vendor and take over his business. Unfortunately the men didn’t think through their strategy.

To reach the vendor’s distribution center, they had to cross a desert. They didn’t have the luxury of jet travel and their camels and horses weren’t equipped with air conditioning.

In such travels, a business owner was often accompanied by a large contingency of laborers to provide protection. It didn’t take long for them all to realize they didn’t have the necessary resources to complete the task—there wasn’t enough water for themselves, their teams, and their animals.

It seemed their plan was doomed to failure. They were lacking one of the key resources needed to successfully carry out their plan; they would not survive the journey if they didn’t find water.

Fortunately one of the men had the good sense to seek out an esteemed business leader in the area. They soon discovered that the consultant was less than excited to help them. All three had sought his advice in the past, but two had refused to act on his advice and they had seen their respective companies slide further into trouble. He didn’t want to waste his time advising people who did not listen.

The third man, however, had listened and acted—sometimes reluctantly—to his advice. As a favor to him, the leader was willing to consider their plight.

After taking some time to think about it, he came back with some interesting advice. His instructions were to take the entourage back into the desert and dig some ditches. The consultant, who knew the area well, told them that by the morning the ditches would fill with water.

I’m sure that was not the type of advice they had hoped to receive. It wasn’t spectacular and it certainly wasn’t the latest trend in corporate warfare.

Nor did the action make sense—dig ditches in the middle of the desert where there was no water and no forecast for water? But they were desperate and instructed their teams to dig. No doubt they received some skeptical looks.

The ditches were dug and an exhausted group of people retired for the night. In the morning when they arose, they found the ditches full of water. Overnight, a flash flood had come down from the mountains and water from the creeks had streamed into the desert. Instead of being soaked into the sand, the water flowed into the ditches.

How did the consultant know that would happen? We can only speculate. The story calls it a miracle of the desert. They did the necessary work and were ultimately rewarded for their effort. 

On top of that, the sun reflected off the water, making it look like blood on the desert.

The corrupt vendor had been watching for the men to arrive. He stopped preparing his team to go into battle, telling them the other side had turned on each other. He said all they had to do was go down and gather the spoils.

How surprised were they to discover the three businessmen and their teams were well-nourished and completely prepared for the takeover?! As a result of their unpreparedness, the corrupt vendor and his team were completely wiped out and the three businessmen were successful in their takeover.

What are the lessons for today’s leaders?

Like digging ditches . . .

  • Leadership is hard work.
  • Leadership is done with faith in the future.
  • Leadership must use delegation.
  • The work of leadership often feels like work without reward.
  • The work of leadership often seems unimpressive or unspectacular.
  • The work of leadership will be criticized or doubted.
  • Leadership means not accepting the present state of dryness.

Even though the three businessmen didn’t have the necessary strategy at first, the character of one of the men put him in favor with a wise consultant willing to help in a time of dire need.

Although this story took place almost 3000 years ago and things have changed in the way business is conducted, one element stands out: The character of that businessman garnered the respect of his employees. He was willing to seek advice and act upon it. He was a leader! When he presented the hare-brained scheme to dig ditches in the desert, they may have had some questions, but they acted for him.

Another reason they acted was that their boss had shown deep respect for the wise business leader. In fact, his team members were first to pick up shovels and picks, while the other companies’ teams grudgingly lent a hand.

Would your employees dig ditches for you in the desert?

At CRG we have created a Leadership Skills InventorySelf, designed to help you gain insight into your leadership skills.

  • This tool will assist you to identify the areas you can improve to become a more effective transformational leader. That will allow you to increase your impact with yourself, others, teams, and organizations.

The assessment is based on research in applied behavioral science and leadership effectiveness. It focuses primarily on helping you develop your ability to manage self and the people side of leadership.

The Leadership Skills InventorySelf has five sections of leadership skills. Each section builds on the previous section. You will cover the following.

  • Self-Management skills for self-control and development
  • Interpersonal communication skills for building positive relationships
  • Coaching, counseling, and problem-management skills to maximize the performance and potential of others
  • Consulting skills for developing teams and organizations
  • Versatility and organizational development skills to optimize organizational effectiveness

The great coach Vince Lombardi said, Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.

If you haven’t had to get your team to dig ditches, trust me—that day is coming. The question is . . . Will you be the type of leader for whom the team will agree to dig those ditches?

You can determine that with the Leadership Skills Inventor–Self. Then get your team to rate you, using Leadership Skills Inventory–Others.

You’ll be glad you did.

Now go find some ditches to dig!

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