Leadership Lessons: Jumping Off the Conclusion Cliff

Years ago I learned a valuable lesson about jumping to conclusions and the inevitable embarrassment that comes when speculation confidently wears a veneer of certainty. It is like diving off a cliff into a lake only to discover the water is just three feet deep. Oops.

The new Millennium had just dawned and with it an exciting opportunity. Darrell Cooper was the BellSouth Network General Manager of the newly formed Atlanta South District. He invited me to be the Director of his Engineering and Construction organization. Creating an organization from scratch was always an exciting challenge but none more so than this one.

Prior to this assignment, I had interacted with Darrell on many occasions and found him to be a great leader, a quintessential team player, a personable manager of people, and above all, a real gentleman. Yep, this was going to be fun.

The work was hard, the challenge immense, but together we developed a dynamic team of high achievers from a success-starved pack of frustrated workers. The synergies were apparent as we closed out 2000 and vaulted into 2001. So it came as quite a shock, something akin to a baseball bat upside the head, when walking by his office one day, I overheard Darrell say to someone on the phone, “What the hell has Buddy done now?

Since my office door was just across from his, I occasionally overheard fragments of his phone conversations. “Buddy did what?“I sure am getting tired of Buddy.” “Yesterday, I had to go out and find Buddy; he was lost!” I was bewildered. I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was. But far be it from me to bring up the subject. If Darrell couldn’t be straight with me, man to man, then I would just wait for the right moment and confront him. Who could he possibly be talking to about me? Our Vice President?

The longer I waited, the more I heard, and the more perturbed I became.

“I can’t go anywhere with Buddy unless he is drugged.” Now Darrell was going too far.

“I even had to go to court and pay a fine for Buddy.” Lies, lies, it was all lies!

That was the last straw. It was time to speak up and challenge this two-timing Cajun. So I tightened my belt one more notch, took a swig of my diet Coke and marched into his office. “Darrell, we need to talk!

Darrell looked up from his desk, utterly oblivious to my angry tone, smiled and in his usual gentlemanly fashion said, “Sure, come on in, have a seat.” Before I could unload my first volley, he came from behind his desk, sat down beside me and said, “You are not going to believe this. My mom finally shaved her dog, and I didn’t even recognize Buddy when I went over to her house last night. That dog is something else. He has been nothing but trouble these past few weeks. Now, what can I help you with?”

For once, it was Darrell who looked bewildered as I made some excuse and quietly made my way back to my office, shaking my head, mumbling “Woof, woof, woof!”

I had made a classic mistake. Rather than trusting the man I knew him to be, I told myself a story about why Darrell said the things he’d said. Then, assuming my limited knowledge sufficient for a conclusion, I emotionally reacted to the story I had told myself. The only problem was, it was the wrong story! Fortunately, I had avoided making a complete fool of myself.

Lesson learned.

Get the facts, seek clarification, and avoid jumping off the “conclusion cliff.” Nevertheless, I still get a little jumpy every time I hear a dog bark.

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