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This is not just a photo of rocks. It’s a leadership metaphor.

As leaders, we’re predisposed to pay attention to our high and low performers and leave our consistent performers to carry on. 

That’s a mistake. Just like me almost missing the ptarmigan. 

This weekend I went for an amazing hike that showcased all of the beauty of Colorado in summer. As my sister-in-law and I were navigating along a trail cut into a steep slope, I was taking in the gorgeous valley below while trying not to misstep and slide down the mountain.

“Hey, check out this bird!” 

I turned around and tried to find what bird she was talking about. Finally, I noticed it, blending into the rocks around it: a ptarmigan (photo on right).

Its summer coloring worked well as camouflage–I was so focused on the beauty and potential peril around me that I walked within a foot or two of it and completely missed it.

My sister-in-law almost missed it too, except it hissed at her. As we stood there watching it and taking photos, it ran up the rocks and that’s when we noticed its two babies (hence the hissing).

My first ptarmigan and I almost missed it. Not the most stunning bird in the animal kingdom by any means, but an important participant in the Colorado ecosystem.

Yep, there’s a leadership metaphor here. 

A great leader spends time on ALL of their people, regardless of the level of performance. What too commonly happens, however, is we focus on our people in this manner:

  • We pay the most attention to our top performers (the magnificent vistas) to keep them happy and engaged. They’re fun! They’re easy to manage! We want to see them continue to succeed!
  • We pay attention to our bottom performers (the perilous slope) to manage them up or out. If you ignore them and hope they’ll just go away, you have a different leadership issue that this metaphor can’t address.
  • We mostly ignore our consistent performers (the ptarmigans), assuming that they’re content and that they’ll keep on keepin’ on.

And then out of nowhere the consistent performers hiss at us to show their disengagement. They leave. They were the glue holding it all together, and now we wonder what we’re going to do.

A great leader balances time spent on ALL of their people, and should even expend a little extra effort with those consistent performers. Why? Because you never know when a little extra attention will turn those consistent performers into something special (ptarmigan babies!).

The (somewhat of a stretch) moral of this story: look for the ptarmigans on your team, and give them the attention they deserve.

If you’re looking for expert guidance on developing your leaders and teams, reach out. And let’s find time to chat!


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