As we watch the footage of the child who came face-to-face with the 450-pound gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo, we try to imagine what that boy experienced, or the disbelief spinning through the minds of his parents and other witnesses as they looked down at Harambe and the child, not knowing what the outcome would be. Now imagine what it felt like to be the decision makers - the zoo officials who had to enact their “worst case” policies. Do they shoot the endangered animal with tranquilizers taking the huge risk of agitating the massive animal further, do they “wait it out”, or do they take the life of the stunning species to ensure the boy’s safety? This is what I call a tragedy with no perfect outcome. However, as in all difficult situations, there are lessons to be learned.
Lesson 1: No matter how hard we try, no matter how well we plan, something will slip through the cracks.
In this case, it was a little boy who crawled through several barriers including a fence and dense bushes, falling down a 10-foot wall and into a moat. The gorilla exhibit had been at the zoo for 38 years with no incident. The enclosure had been inspected and approved for the public and the gorilla’s safety. But parents get distracted or careless, and barriers can be broken. As a leader you understand that planning for all scenarios is impossible. Nonetheless, we develop countless policies and participate in endless trainings. We develop plans…and goals…and contingencies. And yet, somehow, the unimaginable still seems to happen.
Lesson 2: Leadership is messy.
Is it fair that an endangered gorilla was killed while minding his own business in his habitat? Should the parents have been more mindful of their child? Did the crowd's reaction hurt the situation? Was the gorilla enclosure secure enough? Should they have used a tranquilizer instead? So many questions. Some praise the zoo for their quick response to save the boy while others question why other tactics weren’t used. When it gets messy, the “right” path is seldom clear. Ultimately, the people who made the decisions will have to live with them and their consequences for a long time…
Which brings us to the final and most important lesson:
Lesson 3: No matter how well we plan and how many policies are in place, in the end, someone will have to make a judgment call.
At the end of the policy manual is where leadership begins. Sometimes being a leader is not about making the right choice – it’s about making the best, worst one. This is leadership at its messiest. Sometimes, there’s a giant, virtually extinct gorilla dragging around a young child. And somebody has to make a decision quickly…
How are you preparing your next generation of leaders to make judgment calls in your business?
Scott Alexander is a published author, a coach to entrepreneurs and senior executives, an accomplished speaker, and a strategy/leadership consultant.