How Poor Leadership And Learned Helplessness Stifle Innovation

people on the bus

How Poor Leadership And Learned Helplessness Stifle Innovation


Last week I posted my unashamed beliefs about how I believe organisations should be. I want to reiterate them before considering the rest of this blog!

I am passionate and belligerent about these beliefs.

Let me illustrate my beliefs by sharing a little story. This story is at its core, about leadership, morale and making the best of your opportunities.

Imagine that you’re on a bus driven by John. John is good at his specific job. He knows the destination, keeps the bus on the roads, keeps everyone safe, and entertains the passengers with witty quips on the bus’s PA system. You think that you and John have a good relationship. The bus is pretty full with your fellow travellers, and most of the people around you are having a good time. Because you’re a planner you check Google maps and you discover there is an accident on the main highway that the bus is travelling on. It’s going to add at least another hour or so onto the trip. So you say, “hey John, did you know that there is a major accident on this route? Don’t you think you should find a different path to take?”

John says “Yeah, I know about that, I’ve gotta stay the path. Sorry man.”

John doesn’t quite know all the roads, and doesn’t have Google maps, so if he made the decision to change course, he’d have no way to navigate. John doesn’t ask for your input knowing that you have the Google map because John knows that you (let’s be honest) are that annoying squeaky wheel, always telling others that things should be different, but never really giving any options on what path to take to make that change.

Annoyed, you go back and start complaining about John, the bus and the journey overall. Without realising it you become that toxic person on the bus who cuts into the song “the wheels on the bus…” to say “aren’t moving folks…” The only result of your actions is that you end up looking like a kill-joy.

John pulls up and says, “Guys we’ve got this accident ahead. If you’re happy to stay on the bus, great. If not, you’ve got some difficult terrain, but if you cross that paddock, walk for about 1 km and turn left, you’ll hook up with the 246 route that avoids this highway. You’ll then need to get off at street X and Y and walk back about 500m to the destination.”

You have two choices. Stay on the bus, knowing that you’re not enjoying the journey, or get off the bus, face uncertainty and a bit of pain, to end up where you want to get to.

You decide that you’ll stay on the bus. The problems with this decision is that nothing will change for the better. You continue to bitch and moan about this bus as well as John’s incompetence as a bus driver. Then you start taking dibs at the people who get off the bus, complaining that “They really abandoned us. I can’t believe that they left, but jeez why can’t John just change course?”

You also decide right then and there that you’re done. That you’ve always been the one to offer John ways to improve the journey each trip; air conditioning, music, a bus captain to delegate stuff to, someone who gives information about where the bus is and what direction it’s heading into amongst suggestions. Now, this is the final straw; you’re done. You’ve signed out. Learned helplessness has kicked in.

What’s going on here? and how does this relate to my “organisational nirvana”?


OBSTACLE 1: Responsibility Inertia

1.     If you don’t like the direction the bus is going in, and you can’t change it, get off the damn bus!

2.     Don’t complain if you make a choice to stay on the bus! It’s your choice, make the most of it!

3.     Don’t just go to John with the problem – could John have made better choices if you presented some options to him?

4.     Don’t use your issues to degrade the ride for those around you. You’re either on the bus, having fun, singing songs and being a part of it, or make the decision to face the uncertainty of something unknown to improve the situation.

Obstacle 1 lesson: if you don’t like your situation in life (in this context it’s work, but it applies to relationships, environment etc), first try to change it, if you can’t change it, either stay and enjoy it or go. Don’t be a victim to your circumstances. Life is too damn short!


OBSTACLE 2: Decision & Change Fatigue

John has decision and change fatigue. He’s heard all your stories and ideas. John has no process around how to manage these ideas, and, as a result, gets frustrated and stops listening, even when it appears to be a good idea.

1.     John should create a process whereby ideas and innovation are encouraged and sought, but given structure so it’s not up to him to make all the decisions

2.     John would get more from his team if he empowered them to be part of the process

3.     This process should allow John to let go of control, but doing it in a safe way, where there is a “safety net”. He can empower his travellers to take ownership of the ride, but ultimately John still knows that he makes the decision of which direction the wheels go in.

Obstacle 2 lesson: if you’re leading the bus, and you want people to help you on the journey, you have to empower them in a way that gives you confidence to change course. Delegation means you’re not always the one making every crucial decision.


OBSTACLE 3: Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness in organisations is a silent killer to happiness and innovation. There, I’ve said it! John has a responsibility to give you opportunities to develop your skills. Further to that, John has a responsibility to ensure he does it in a way that empowers you and leaves him able to focus on what he needs to focus on.

1.     As it turns out, John hired you because of your previous experience in logistics, transport and efficiency programs.

2.     As a result of John being stuck in the weeds of keeping the bus on the road, he’s lost the focus of why you were employed in the first place. John has failed to check in on you, on where you want to be heading and on what drives and inspires you.

3.     John is no longer getting the best from you as you start to give up on your natural talents of wanting to create efficiencies and improvements.

4.     This isn’t the first time John has lost other great talents because of his own failure to utilise and harness the greatness in others that have come across his path.

Obstacle 3 lesson: if you’re driving the bus, it’s a lonely journey if you keep losing people along the way. If your time is constantly spent finding new people, is it worth asking the following question: Are those losses due to your own failure to lead effectively? Are those losses because of your own failure to get out of the daily weeds that are choking your business in order to invest in the existing talent around you?

Ultimately, the responsibility for the health of your business falls upon the leaders within it, including you as a business owner. Although I strongly believe that if you’re not loving the journey, you should get off the bus, I also believe that leaders have a responsibility to nurture and encourage all talent to reach their full potential.

Do you believe you know how to create bus ride where people are loving the journey, even if there are unexpected issues ahead? Developing outstanding cultures and strong leaders is the key, and this is where I believe “organisational nirvana” exists.


What to do next:

I live and breathe helping business owners get the clarity needed to continue going forward, and this is without a doubt my deep passion and purpose; I absolutely love what I do. If you want to have a chat about how I help you achieve your goal, get in touch.

Read this next:  Leadership 101 – Make Them Part of the Process


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