No, that was not a rhetorical question.
Do we recognize the importance of something because it didn’t happen or do we dismiss it since it really never happened?
Wally Bock in his Three Star Leadership letter from 12/31/10 wrote about Peter de Jager who was the first person to identify that computers might have a problem with the year 2000 and how their dates were formatted. One of the lessons that Wally takes from this is,
“Peter de Jager Lesson Nr 1: It may be glorious to ride to the rescue after a crisis hits, but it is far more productive to head off a crisis and create a non-event.”
We are a society that loves the rescuer but often derides the person who makes the non-event. Think about it…de Jager was blasted as being a fear monger and spreading a bunch of hype (see some of the response right after Y2K here) for his warnings. We don’t know how big of an impact Y2K would have had without the massive upfront work done on it… and yes it might have been overkill…but again, we don’t really know. That is core of the problem.
The fact of the matter is, good leadership is often more about making non-events happen than it is about being the hero after the crisis already started. But because non-events are hard to quantify (actually impossible to quantify) they are not often taken into account. Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan points this out. Non events, by their definition, are impossible to identify because of the fact that they never happened. We don’t know how many other 9/11’s didn’t happen (we can guess, but we can never really know).
How do you quantify or prove that your up front work on customer service training prevented a big PR crisis that was about to happen? How do you show that the team building program done last year was a key aspect on the retention of two high performing people? How do you show that your incentive program design changes stopped a major lawsuit from ever happening?
For most non-events, you can’t.
Ok, you can estimate or predict or extrapolate…(i.e., an employee said they were thinking of leaving but decided to stay because the teambuilding event was so fantastic).
But that is really what good leadership is about – isn’t it. Not only is it making good things happen, but it is preventing bad things from happening in the first place.