Why Do Hamsters Eat Their Young?

I’ve been writing for the past few months about the need for leaders and aspiring leaders to look inward and develop a self-understanding of our own strengths, weakness and the psychological places where we are stuck.  Until we do so I don’t believe we can utilize the full potential of our own agency in our organizations or in the world.  For me this is a core value.  I have power, I make decisions and those decisions have consequences.

This appreciation and the concomitant humility that accompanies it came from a life-shaping experience that happened when I was in the sixth grade. The Christmas holidays were approaching. (And in my town we did call it the Christmas holidays). I was a good student and was carrying a perfect “100” average on my math tests and thus was rewarded by being selected to take home the class hamster over the break.  I was thrilled! I gently wrapped the cage in a blanket to protect Hamster Bob from the cold and carried him home and put him in my room.

Now, home wasn’t so pleasant then and I stayed in my room most of the time, listening to my mother and stepfather wage war downstairs. That night the fights downstairs were particularly awful and I had a scarf tied around my head, cloaking out the sound, watching Hamster Bob.  Then the unthinkable happened.  Hamster Bob was really Hamster Roberta and tiny little hamsters emerged!  Losing myself in the miracle of birth – and drowning out the chaos around me – I reached into the cage with a finger and petted one of the squirmy little pink hairless things that had appeared.    I don’t need to go into the gruesome details because you know what happened next. The mama hamster smelled my touch and reacted the way that mama hamsters do:  the baby hamsters were no more.  Hamster Bob (Roberta) was a cannibal and a monster.  I was sobbing.  But it didn’t matter how I felt or what I meant to do or what I didn’t understand before I acted.  It didn’t matter that I only wanted to ignore the fighting downstairs and make myself feel better with the sweet little baby hamsters.  I really got the fact that my actions had consequences.

How do we work on our self-awareness that allows us to act with deliberation and the best understanding we can have of the potential consequences of our actions? This is not abstract.  For example, most companies must downsize at some point in time.  How you execute that downsizing has enormous impact on the remaining staff.  All companies go through cost cutting.  The way a leader makes those decisions and communicates them can make the difference between success and failure.  Even something so seemingly minor like how a leader disagrees with someone can have unintended consequences.

It used to be a running joke among my staff at GfK MRI that I kept the Harvard Business Review in business, ordering reprints to hand out to the staff to instruct and inspire them.  Mea Culpa.  But I had one favorite article that for many years I handed out to every new employee and it is the article I still read myself every year, “Managing Oneself,” by Peter Drucker, Harvard Business Review, 1999.  Drucker’s premise really speaks to me: only when you operate from a combination of your strengths and self-knowledge can you achieve true and lasting excellence.   According to Drucker, to build a life of excellence begin by asking yourself some key questions:

·     What are my strengths?
Drucker suggests methods to accurately assess strengths that are rigorous and systematic, like feedback analysis.  He says that every time you make a decision you should record your expected outcome and then compare to the actual results.  Over time look for patterns.  These patterns reveal strong skills as well as areas for improvement.

·     How do I work?
In what ways do you do your best work? Do you process most effectively by reading or hearing others discuss it? Are you better working with others or working alone? How do you handle stress?

·     What are my values?
What are your ethics?  What do you see as your most important responsibilities for living a worthwhile life? Does your organization’s ethics resonate with your own?

·     Where do I belong?
Considering your strengths, preferred work style and values, what kind of work environment best suits you?  Find the perfect fit and you’ll be a star performer.

·     What can I contribute?
How might you – with you strengths, work style and values – make the greatest contribution to your organization’s efforts?

No matter what level we are, no matter what stage we are in our career, no matter if we are being paid or volunteering, it is a fundamental responsibility to manage ourselves.  Our actions have consequences; sometimes the consequences are small ones, some far reaching.  Ignorance of those consequences cannot be an excuse if you want to be the best leader – or the best person – you are capable of being.

“When you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. When you desire a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it.”    ― Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory