The Ostrich Complex

Originally published: 05.01.08 by W. Theodore (Theo) Etzel


Burying your head in the sand doesn’t solve problems 

Myth: Ostriches bury their heads in the sand.

Fact: They don’t. It merely appears that way when they flop their head on the ground and their head and neck blend into the sand.

Another fact: Some business leaders really do bury their heads in the sand when faced with difficult decisions.

Tough decisions are just that, tough. Playing the “ignore it and it’ll go away” game is disastrous. This is a win-lose situation where the problem wins and the organization loses. When problems arise that need decisive action, the leader disappears. The thinking behind this management strategy: If I give it enough time, the problem will go away on its own. It won’t. On top of that, the leader’s image in the organization is severely compromised. It’s the “feel better now” syndrome. That becomes a short-lived feeling as the weight of indecision mounts with every passing day. Avoiding tough decisions means inefficient operations and a directionless atmosphere.

When problems put people in uncomfortable situations, burying your head in the sand seems like a comfortable solution. While temporarily affording a safe zone, ignoring what needs to be done only postpones an even larger feeling of discomfort and ineffective leadership. As time goes by without decisions forth coming, the choices available for

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corrective actions become fewer and fewer. This is where the cycle of discomfort, frustration and regret grip the leader and the consequences are felt inside the organization. Often, more problems are borne of this behavior and a pattern of weak leadership ability develops.

When I first started in business I had a mentor that was in the hotel development field. His No. 1 philosophy was that time kills all deals. In other words, opportunities will fall by the wayside and problems will grow when people just let time pass. Most of the time it is fear, avoiding emotional discomfort, or a desire to have all the information before making a decision that causes leaders to bury their heads in the sand. And I, too, have fallen into that trap. However, experience is a wonderful teacher. The key is learning from, and not repeating, those experiences.

Fear is a good thing to possess in many instances. It’s what prevents us from blindly walking into the middle of a busy street. It heightens our awareness of our surroundings. It should make us take appropriate action. However, when a leader experiences the fear of making a wrong decision (or fear of failure) and then chooses to ignore the situation in hopes of it going away, that form of fear is dangerous for the life of the organization. The fear of not being seen as perfect or being able to make the perfect decision every time is not healthy for the leader or the people around him or her.

Some decisions are simply not fun. Who wouldn’t rather have days filled with fun than some rock-your-boat decisions that need to be made? Most people don’t wake up and look for emotionally uncomfortable situations in which to put themselves. Again, running from this discomfort leads to ignoring the problem or opportunity presented and results in a failure to address the immediate consequences of the situation. A larger bucket of consequences awaits all involved as time goes by with no action.

It would be so nice to have all the information before having to make a decision. That would be almost as good as having a crystal ball. But few situations present themselves in full light and with all the facts. We are left to make decisions with varying degrees of completeness of facts. People who continue to wait for just a little more information suffer from paralysis by analysis. Nothing gets done until one more piece of the puzzle is known. Trouble is, we never have enough pieces of the puzzle for the full picture. Again, time will kill the deal and limit the options when we wait too long. However, I’m not suggesting you get your exercise by jumping to conclusions with barely enough information in hand. Being decisive with too little understanding can be equally disastrous. Knowing where that fine line of time spent versus information gathered is a sign of leadership maturity.

So how does one extricate one’s cranium from the silica? It takes practice. But through focus, discipline, and action proper decisions and forward-moving steps can happen. Most situations we are faced with are surrounded by fuzzy, extraneous information and opinions. Focusing on the true kernel of the problem or dilemma usually brings it down to a size that becomes manageable. Ask questions to reveal the true root of the problem. Many times it is not one giant problem but a series of smaller ones that have been allowed to fester. Decisively dealing with each smaller component makes dealing with the collective much easier.

It takes discipline to stay and face the battle rather than run and hide or ignore it. This is a gut check. By dealing with the issues, examining options and asking advice from trusted sources, you are doing positive things to address the problem. This is where deliberate thought and focus come together to help formulate a plan of action.

Action: when the talk is implemented into a plan that is put into motion and people are held accountable to get it done. A business plan on a shelf doesn’t bring a business to life. But make people responsible for sections of that plan by charging them with taking action on those areas and the business becomes a thriving entity. You can’t talk a parachute open; you have to pull the rip cord. People see and react to action. They feel as if they had better take action because the leader is taking action. The leader is seen as a decisive person and not afraid to wrestle with a tough problem.

I mentioned the fear factor — the fear of not being perfect or the fear of failure. Maybe I should have given up a long time ago since I’m not perfect and I’ve experienced failures before. People know leaders are not perfect. Most, if not all, have had some form of failure in one of their attempts at an idea. Your staff and customers are OK with that as long as you are facing the day-to-day challenges head-on and not with your backside running away. I’ll take an imperfect decision maker over a perfectionist afraid to pull the trigger any day. A Chinese proverb illustrates my point: Fall down six times, get up seven. Mistakes happen but better to be proactive in making them than avoiding the problem and being at the mercy of time and a reactive situation.

Focus, discipline, action are the three steps you must take in order to pull your head out of the sand. Focus on the heart of the matter; have discipline to stand in there and face the music; take action to correct the situation. The feeling of relief from conquering an obstacle that seemed daunting before facing up to it is enormous. And the best part is real relief with lasting benefits — not just a “feel better now” panacea.

Theo Etzel is an HVACR Business editorial advisory board member and president of Naples, Fla.-based Conditioned Air.


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