Executive Leadership isn’t Like a Box of Chocolates


Executive Leadership isn’t Like a Box of Chocolates

The other evening, tired from a long, but productive day at VIM Executive Coaching, I turned on the television and ran across an “old friend,” the movie, Forrest Gump. The movie essentially details an entire generation, and along the way Forrest utters the iconic line of life being like a box of chocolates, meaning you never quite know what will happen or what you’re going to get. I thought about the phrase for a while and while I love the movie, I’m afraid it doesn’t hold up too many of the aspects of leadership.

The Cheat Sheet
I’m afraid to start out by throwing a chocolate blanket on everything but I can’t help but comment that many candy companies now sell their assortments with a guide, a kind of an assortment cheat sheet. You can pretty much tell what you’re going to get before you plunge into the commitment of biting a chocolate morsel. Neither life nor executive leadership work that way. We never know what’s around the corner in terms of life or our workplace. We can guess, but making guesses is tricky business at best.

Minimally (not to get too candy oriented), most of us can tell the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate and then there’s the shape. While we can’t always guess the filling, we can have more than an educated guess as to whether it is hard or soft, chewy caramel or a chocolate covered cherry.

However, the biggest difference between the phrase and life might be this: a box of candy is more like a process of elimination. We tend to pick out what we perceive as the tastiest piece first and then (hopefully over time, not at once!) we keep munching away, even working our way down to the dreaded crunchy stuff. Let’s face it, for most of us, ultimately any piece of chocolate in the box still works!

Putting Away the Assortment
Unlike the candy assortment, executive leadership should not be about a reaction here and a reaction there, where we choose a piece of candy based on what we think will work and what won’t. Nor should we go into a major decision with a “cheat sheet,” or putting it another way, with a preconceived set of expectations.

If two employees or two departments or even two divisions are having disagreements or philosophical differences, or are downright hostile to one another, we shouldn’t automatically assume or have a built-in bias that one party will always be at fault and the other party will always be right. If we do so, we are reacting without making decisions.

As I mentioned above in regard to “ultimately any piece of candy will do,” the fact that two parties or departments or even divisions may be in disagreement doesn’t mean we hold our executive noses and choose the lesser of two evils. There are other paths and other ways if he are authentic about it. I am reminded of that all too common mistake of the executive who sifts through a huge batch of resumes, likes no one, yet rather than solicit for more resumes, chooses the candidate found to be the most acceptable fit rather than the most desirable. 

Executive leadership isn’t…
While the analogy of executive decision making or life itself might have seemed to Forrest Gump and millions of movie-goers like a box of chocolates, I am afraid it’s not. Choosing a chocolate covered anything at random or by guesswork is neither being mindful of consequences nor authentic in terms of leadership. Yet, my experience at VIM Executive Coaching is that many new clients come to me after they have made far too many choices based on reaction, or always going with heir instincts rather than being mindful.

If we are authentic in our decision making, we can be effective leaders. If we are responsive rather than reactive in our choices we can generally be at peace with our decisions.

Finally, I well remember observing a five-year old at a party, wide-eyed, observing a huge selection of assorted chocolates. She grabbed one piece, bit into it, made a face, threw it away, and grabbed a second piece, threw it away, and as she went for the third her mother shrieked at her! It was a funny scene, but unfortunately far too many executives operate under a similar system. To go by reaction never works. The key, as always, is being mindful.

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