When the Cat’s Away the Mice Will What???

We all know the ending to this simple rhyme. When the cat’s away the mice will play. And we shudder at its implications when we consider going on a business trip or taking some time off for vacation. What will greet us on our return? Utter chaos?

It’s almost not worth going away at all. Ever.

But I would like to challenge the premise of this cat and mouse proverb with a question. Is the cat a leader? I don’t think so. The cat gets results by doing one thing: enforcing. By the sheer power of intimidation the cat keeps the mice under control. In its absence chaos reigns.

If when you’re away the mice play, maybe you’re not a leader either. Maybe you’re just an enforcer, an intimidator who gets certain outcomes only when personally present to assure them. As a result you diminish the capacity of your people, who can’t function without you, and the capacity of your organization, whose performance is dependent on your omnipresence (Something only God possesses).

What’s A Cat To Do?

What mice need is a reason not to play when the cat’s away. They need a cause that will motivate them to achieve the results the cat seeks and empower them to take action apart from external threats and intimidation. And, no, I’m not talking about cheese, just a different form of external manipulation. I’m talking about lighting a fire within.

I know this isn’t going to happen with lowly field mice, but it can happen with real people. People have the most amazing capacity for sustained, self-directed effort when motivated by a compelling cause. It’s your job as a leader to uncover this cause and use it inspire others to greatness.

Here are two ways you can do that:

1. A Compelling Organizational Cause

First, identify the purpose your company serves. Human beings have a deep, inner drive for their life count, your company’s  cause is one way you can help fulfill that drive. Mission matters.

Answer this question: How does what you do make a difference in people’s lives? Instead of pushing a bog rock up a tall mountain like Sisyphus did–a daily exercise in futility–organizational cause gives one’s work deeper meaning and motivation to keep going in spite of obstacles in the way. Or, in the words of Simon Sinek, “Start with why.”

MORE: Four Keys to Creating a Culture of Accountability in Your Company

2. A Compelling Individual Cause

People also have their own reasons for doing things. Everyone has their own individual why. Let them bring it to work. Helping others find their personal mission in life is a powerful act of leadership.

I’ve worked with people who were working hard  to buy their first house, to put their children through college debt-free, or to support an orphanage in Haiti. All of these are powerful motivators that we talked about freely and inspired world-class results.

Again, human beings want their life to count. Show them how it can in your company and you’ll stop being a cat and start being a powerful, effective leader.


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