Coaching to Save the Day

Coaching People to Uncover Their Ideas Can Help You Save the Day

I love the book We Bought a Zoo. It's a chronicle about a family with no background in running zoos who bought a run-down zoo before the animals had to be shipped out or euthanized. It's a noble action. Then they had to face the realities of rebuilding and running a profitable zoo. It's a fabulous book.

My favorite story starts with a zookeeper running into the new Zoo Director's office to tell him the jaguar had escaped. Yet instead of dashing out into the city streets looking for victims, the jaguar leaped into the tiger's cage next door.

The Zoo Director grabbed his gun and ran to the big cat's cages. Why the gun? They could scare them apart. Then, if they had to break up a fight, it would be better to kill one animal than to lose them both. In this case, the jaguar was the endangered species and must be preserved.

It was likely Sovereign the jaguar had never seen a tiger in person until that moment. Tammy the tiger was twice his weight. The Zoo Director arrived just in time to see the jaguar leap at the tiger. With one movement, Tammy smacked the jaguar across the cage like a toy.

Tammy was reluctant to give up. As if daring Sovereign to try again, Tammy jumped to a top of a rock, roared and crouched, ready to leap. The Zoo Director had to decide if it were time to shoot her.


But wait! There is another way to approach this problem. Yes, leaders must take decisive action in a crisis and especially in the face of danger. Or do they?

Before he pulled the trigger, the cat keeper Kelly ordered all available men to line up in front of the cage and yell loudly at Tammy. Kelly knew Tammy didn't like men or shouting.

A line of men, including the IT consultant and groundskeepers who were ogling the situation, started yelling at the tiger, telling her she was bad, she should go to her room, she doesn't play well, and whatever else they could think to yell. The cat keepers called Tammy to her house.

Tammy looked as if she were sprayed with water. She squinted and flattened her ears. Within moments, she cracked, jumped off the rock and ran to her room. The door slammed behind her. They were able to get the jaguar out of harm's way.

When do you feel you have to make a decision on your own? Are you sure you can't get anyone else's input? In my years of teaching leadership classes, I have heard too many excuses from leaders and high-achievers who insist that they must make certain decisions on their own and much of their work can't be delegated. Is this absolutely true? Here are some ideas to help you determine if you have to act on our own or can elicit ideas from others through coaching and outright asking for their help:

Is it a rule or a habit?

When you are working on a project on your own, making a difficult decision, or handling details because you think you are the only one with answers, ask yourself, "Is it true that there is no one I can ask to help me?" Do you know that asking for help is a gift more than a burden? People like giving advice because they feel good and smart when you let them help you. Even if you end up acting on your own and ignoring their help, at least they helped you weigh the options.

Also, it's good leadership to ask for help. When I teach leadership classes, I ask the question, "What do your process procedures and organizational rules say to people? Do they say, "I don't trust you or believe in your competence to contribute?" or do they say, "Chip in, we love the help?" Also, who made the decision-making rules in the first place? Are the conditions different so the rules no longer serve? Isn't it time to change the rules and procedures so that people feel engaged and valued?

Who would have a different interpretation of the event?

Your brain automatically assigns meaning to events and behaviours regardless of how many facts are at your fingertips. It is always good to ask others for their interpretation of an event to see if you are missing something. In the zoo story, the director was coming from a preservation interpretation. His cat keeper, who works with the animals daily, had a different interpretation based on what was attracting or distracting the tiger in the moment. Don't count on your own brain to know everything. Fill in your blanks by gathering other perspectives, even in a crisis.

Are you willing to let go of being the one who knows?

As a leader, the foundation of your success has been your intelligence and experience. If you ask for help, will people question the core of who you think you are-the one who knows? The truth is, if you are truly one with knowledge and answers, people will feel honored when you ask them for their ideas. Besides, letting go of this need is truly freedom. Try it out and let me know what happens.

If you were brought up to believe that you are a strong, independent thinker who can conquer big challenges that come your way, you may be overlooking your greatest resource: help from others. Go be even stronger by asking for help.

Marcia Reynolds
Marcia Reynolds