I recently read two business parables that I quite enjoyed: The Weekly Coaching Conversation (Brian Souza) and the ever popular, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni). I discovered the power of this kind of story to teach valuable lessons about leadership and life. I decided to try my hand at writing a parable on a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while now: choice.

An essential academic is one who recognizes she has choice and exercises that choice in order to make her highest contributions. Not acting intentionally with choice can lead to all kinds of negative – even unintended – outcomes, such as overwhelm, burnout, dissatisfaction, frustration, and loss of connection with the reason we chose to do our work in the first place.

We have choice about:

  • what opportunities offer the most benefit, given that all “opportunities” consume resources (most importantly – time)
  • the design of our programs of research, including the topics we study and methodological approaches we use
  • how we organize our day
  • how we manage our resources, including our time and money
  • the environment in which we work
  • who we collaborate with
  • how we build, grow and manage our teams

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the necessity of acting on choice as a part of a “proactive” habit, where instead of saying “I can’t,” we say “I choose.” Instead of “I must” or “I should” – I prefer. “I will” becomes our mantra instead of “I have to do that,” or “They won’t allow that.”

In the spirit of exploring the value of choice, I hope that you enjoy this parable.

The Power of Choice: A Parable

It was an amazing day – one of the first warm days of spring. In a climate where winter held on for over 9 months of the year, this was no small thing.

Martha tried to call Lindsay to suggest a slight change in plan for their weekly coaching meeting, but the call went straight to voicemail. Following prompts, Martha suggested, “Hi, Lindsay! Why don’t we meet down at the River Gazebo and have a walking meeting along the river paths today? Let me know if that works. Talk to you soon. Bye – Martha.”

A few minutes later, Lindsay picked up the call. She was always glad to hear from Martha. They had built a special relationship since she had started coaching a few months before, and she valued their time together.

Her smile faded as she listened to the message. Hmmmm. Leave the office to have a walking meeting on the river paths? Lindsay had never done that. She arrived at the university at 7:30 am every morning, and like clockwork, left at 6:00pm. Her internal struggle lasted a few minutes before she made the call.

“Hi, Martha. Sure – that sounds great. I’ll see you at 12:30pm. River Gazebo.”

—-

Lindsay arrived just in time to see Martha’s red and white-striped Fiat circle into the parking lot. She waved enthusiastically, locked up her car and headed over.

“Thanks for meeting me here,” Martha smiled. “This is one of my favourite places. I come here when I need to think, or just be re-energized!”

They started walking down the path. A few chunks of ice were still visible, hanging desperately on to the side banks. The air was heavy with warmth and birdsong. A light breeze tossed the small spring leaves that had started to form on the trees that lined the path like a bridal arch. Martha could immediately see that Lindsay was not her usual enthusiastic self. “Lindsay, you don’t seem quite yourself today. What’s on your mind?”

Lindsay looked downward, pensive. After a few moments, she responded, “You know – I’ve never done anything like this – walking at noon down by the river. Or, having a walking meeting. I do the ‘expected’ thing – arrive at the Uni early, leave late. Make sure everyone knows that I’m hard at it.” She paused.

Martha waited, knowing that Lindsay was taking time to process what she had just said.

They continued walking. A few minutes later, Lindsay said softly, “It’s just that I don’t think I ever realized that I actually have a choice.”

Martha turned to Lindsay, “What about that idea is important to you?”

“Well, I’m not sure I’m always acting as if I have choice. Lately I’ve been pretty stressed – mostly because I’m so stretched. I have a lot of my own projects running, which is great. But I’m also involved in several other people’s projects. I’m on four committees and each one seems to have increasing demands. I’m trying to be a good corporate citizen and I try to help my colleagues out where I can. But I’m not sure I’ve made the right decisions. Actually – I’m not sure that I made the decisions for the right reasons, either.”

Martha could see Lindsay was really thinking this through. She asked, “If you did act as if you had a choice, what would be different for you?”

“Well, that’s a great question. I’d think hard about new commitments. Say ‘yes’ more discriminately. I’d focus more – only do the things that were linked to my research or my career goals and graciously decline things that were too far out of that scope. Right now, I say ‘yes’ a lot of the time just to be helpful… or rather to look like I’m being helpful.”

Martha repeated, “to look like you’re being helpful.”  Lindsay turned to look at Martha, “Wow. When you say it like that!!” They both laughed. “I never thought about that before. I’m doing things that aren’t always good for me to do…so I look good. I’ve never been one to cave into peer pressure, but here I am. Caving.”

They turned a gentle bend in the path, where an empty bench looked over a lovely section of the river. Sitting down, Martha asked, “What would you rather be doing?” She was always good at turning the conversation around to the future.

“There’s no question. I’d rather act like I had a choice. I’d know what I needed to focus on. I’d have a clear, defined idea about what my research program includes and doesn’t include. I’d be able to support that with commitments that were linked to that, kind of like leveraging one against the other.

Martha responded, “And if you acted like you had a choice, what would that give you?” Lindsay paused. A few seconds later, she spoke quietly, “I wouldn’t feel so torn, or so ‘run ragged.’ And I think I’d have less stress. And more clarity – I’d just be clearer about what was within the scope of what I need to do and what I shouldn’t do.”

Martha spoke softly, “And how could things be different this week with that new insight?”

Lindsay looked off in the distance. When she spoke, she did so with certainty and energy. “Well, this is a big shift for me – philosophically and practically. I need to start small. As we talked about last week – small steps over time lead to big success! So, I’m going to start by thinking about the boundaries of my research – what does the program actually look like. I think that over time those boundaries have become less and less clear, and so I’m saying ‘yes’ to everything. Then I’m going to review my other commitments and figure out which ones just don’t fit that anymore. I think it will mean cutting out some commitments, but those are probably the ones I’m struggling with anyway and I’m not putting my best foot forward. It would be better for everyone.”

The following week when Martha checked in with Lindsay she was in a different space. She had examined all the projects she was involved in with a critical eye and made some decisions about which ones just didn’t fit with her program of research – an essential beginning! She had started to think about how she wanted to define the scope of her program of research, which helped her to feel less burdened.

And on that note, stay tuned for the next post!

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Dawn