Lobster Moments:  The Natural Growing Pains of Leadership

About one month into my first group manager role, I had a staff member come to me and abruptly resign.  I was just learning the job and didn’t know this individual very well and was not aware of the backlog of complicated issues that led to this decision.  I wish that I could say I handled this situation with poise, compassion and strength, but instead my emotions took over and I spent the next few days running around like a panicked chicken.  I was completely reactionary and in the end was less than effective on behalf of either the organization or the departing staff member.  It was not a performance to be proud of.

Three months later I had another staff member announce his resignation.  This time I was able to calmly listen, clarify and then address the situation.  I worked back and forth between the individual and the organization and together we identified an alternative path forward that did not involve an immediate resignation and met the near-term interests of both the staff member and the organization.  This time I felt like a much better manager and was proud of the way I handled the situation.  The contrast between the two scenarios is stark and shows how much I had learned since the awkward and painful lessons of my first experience.

I call these learning experiences Lobster Moments.  Lobsters have lifetimes similar to humans but while we grow and change gradually throughout our lives, the hard exoskeleton of the lobster means that it only grows through molting – developing, shedding and growing into a new shell.  Descriptions and videos of the actual shell-shedding process illustrate how awkward and difficult the experience can be as a lobster must pull its entire body–every claw, leg and antenna–out of the previous shell.  During this time the lobster is not able to move or protect itself and during specific stages of the process it cannot even breathe.  A newly molted lobster has a softer shell and is much more vulnerable to predators for several days and often spends this time hiding in rocks before emerging and continuing its normal activities.

At the risk of anthropomorphizing a crustacean, I imagine the cycle to be something like this. One day you are a big strong lobster, king of your domain and afraid of nothing.  The next day you are on display for the world to see while you try to awkwardly extract yourself from your perfectly comfortable, hard, safe shell.  It is painful.  You feel scared and vulnerable.  You can’t breathe.  You aren’t sure you’re going to make it.  You think about giving up.  Once you are successfully out, you scuttle into the rocks to recover and let your new shell begin to harden.  A few days later you come back out and return to your regular lobster duties and spend the next several months growing in to your new bigger, stronger shell.  Eventually you feel like you can take on the world – after all, you are bigger than anyone else around and nothing can threaten you.  But guess what–it’s now time to grow another new shell…  And so the natural cycle repeats. 

The Lobster Moment that I describe above is only one of many, many experiences that I can point to throughout my career and life in general.  Those moments that rocked my world for a few hours or a few days.  Those experiences were painful, and awkward and scary and I wasn’t sure how I was going to navigate through them.  But invariably a week or a month or a year later, life returned to ‘normal’ and I was back to doing what I do but now with a new experience that made me better prepared to face new challenges.  Those lobster moments shape who I am today.  And they are a natural, unavoidable part of life.

Lobster Moments don’t mean you aren’t a good leader.  They mean you are a growing one.  They are a part of the natural cycle and each experience helps you become a bigger, stronger and, dare I say, wiser lobster.  So the next time you find yourself in one of those moments where you feel scared and stuck and want to scuttle under your desk, take some solace in the knowledge that this is a natural part of being a leader and you will return to your normal life with a new shell, better prepared to face whatever lies ahead.

Jana Strasburg, Innovation Leader

JD_Strasburg@yahoo.com