A Warning Light

When we left Colorado to come home early Sunday morning, the check engine light was on in my car. The car was running fine, fluids and pressures were good, and in general it was not at all apparent that anything was wrong. My car came with a service where I can push a button and call the service people, so I did. After a short conversation, they suggested it was the sensor which lets the car know fumes are leaking from the gas cap. Simply removing the cap and putting it back on would solve the problem, but they said it might take several times of turning the car off and back on for the light to clear.

From then on, every time we stopped, someone would ask, “Is the light off?” When we stopped in Kansas for gas, I noticed the light was finally off. My son said, “The lesson here is that if you ignore your problems long enough, they go away.” Funny? Yes. True? No. We will come back to that.

Most people would consider the great white shark an apex predator. I recently read an interesting article in The Atlantic that surprised me. Great white sharks are afraid of killer whales, or orcas. The article relates how a team of scientists tracking the movement of great white sharks realized that the presence of orcas caused the sharks to leave the area. In one instance, a pod of orcas merely traveled through an area where the sharks were feeding, causing the sharks to leave, not just momentarily, but for the rest of the year. Having to move to find a new source of food potentially interrupts the migration of the sharks and can have serious and lasting impact.

It is worth noting that killer whales kill very few great white sharks. However, when they do attack, they are very successful. Interestingly, the killer whales seem to be most interested in the shark’s liver, which can account for a quarter of its body weight and is even richer in fats and oils than whale blubber. So, when the whales move in, the sharks move out.

It occurred to me that an orca claiming it had never killed a great white shark would not make the sharks feel any different. The imbalance of power, and the reality that some sharks are killed by some orcas, is all it takes for the rest of the sharks to act out of fear when the orcas are present.

As leaders, we need to understand that there is an imbalance of power. Historically, that imbalance has been used to hurt the less powerful. To some extent, those without power will react in fear to those with power. It is not relevant that I have not harmed another person from my position of power, nor is it relevant that the person I’m interacting with has not been harmed. There is an understanding at an almost intuitive level that there is a danger, and people will respond out of fear of this perceived danger.

I am not suggesting that there should be no imbalance of power any more than I am suggesting that orcas quit being orcas. I am suggesting that we all be more sensitive to the impact we have on other people, particularly those with less power. I doubt the orcas gave much thought to the impact they had on the sharks. They were just moving from one place to another. For the sharks however, the resulting interruption had serious consequences.

Likewise, when we act from a position of power, we have the responsibility to be aware of the impact our words, actions, and attitudes have on those we are called to serve. It is disingenuous for us to say, “I have never (fill in the blank)”, when we are representative of a group that has. Unlike sharks and killer whales, humans have the capacity for empathy. It is unlikely that a great white shark thinks, “I know what it’s like to have my whole life interrupted by the actions of someone in power, so I will be more conscientious about how I behave around those who have less power.”

We can.

This principle applies equally anywhere there is a perceived imbalance of power that has ever been used to the detriment of the less powerful. Historically, this has been true in the relationships between men and women, people of different races, and more and less technologically advanced societies, to name a few.

We cannot make everyone identical, nor should we. The solution is for those who have power to also accept responsibility for how that power impacts others. As leaders, we are required to lead, using the power of our position when necessary, and we are also required to understand how the imbalance of power can impact those we serve in negative ways. It is our responsibility to minimize this negative impact.

Back to the check engine light.

While it seemed that ignoring the light, and therefore the problem it signified, did in fact make the problem go away, this was not the truth. We had taken the action specified to resolve the problem. It took some time for the symptoms of the problem, and therefore the warning light, to clear up. This is also true for human interactions. We will have to continue taking the right actions while we wait, maybe for a very long time, for the symptoms and the warning lights to go away.

As a member of my community, it is my responsibility to practice empathy and contemplate my words, actions, and attitudes with understanding of the impact I have on those around me. Acknowledging that the warning lights may not be my fault, but are most certainly my responsibility, is part of being a great leader, and it is The Kimray Way.