Knife throwing is a sport that involves basic principles of mechanics. The force and dynamics of the throw are crucial to have the knife strike the object and lodge itself securely. In the U.S. there are groups such as the IKTHOF (International Knife Throwers Hall of Fame) and the AKTA (American Knife Throwers Alliance) that all practice this sport. There is another group that you might be more familiar with and that is the circus knife thrower. You know the guy who dresses up in a funny outfit and propels knives, in what appears to be a haphazard manner, at a woman who is tied up to a large target. After doing some research, I discovered that there is nothing haphazard about this performance at all. The clown is actually very experienced at knife throwing and the unlucky woman on the other end is played this part enough times to how close the knife will come to her when it leaver the clown’s hand. The clown is known as the knife thrower and the girl as the “target girl”. Both play a crucial role in this performance. The hype comes not only from the throwing of the knife but from the thrill of seeing the target girl remain perfectly still as sharp objects are flung at her with precision. Truth be told, the target girl is the one who is controlling the throwers movements, she dictates most of the success of the performance. If she moves between throws he is forced to calibrate that change ever so slightly. True the thrower must have skill, but all the skill in the world will not change the outcome if the target girl moves about.
When I was young my friends and I would practice the art of knife throwing in our backyards. We had our own version where we would stand 15 paces from each other and stand feet spread wide and try and throw the knife between the other person’s feet with the object of making the knife stick in the ground. Looking back that game seems not only silly but dangerous. However, at the time it was a great sense of amusement. None of us were skilled in knife throwing and none of us ever stood perfectly still.
So when you are 10 years old, having knives thrown at you may be amusing, but as an adult the emotional response is quite different. Recently, I took on a new role at a large organization and I have to admit that for the last four weeks I have felt like the “target girl” at the circus. The proverbial knives have come in the form of expectations, demands, and safari knowledge. Safari knowledge is when you are left on your own to search out and discover things. It is not uncommon to feel like you are drinking from a fire hose when you take on a new role, especially one where you are leading people. As a leader you have to learn not only the organization, but the people who you are charged to lead. When you enter into an organization that is consumed with rapid change you are bound to find a lot of firefighting and confusion. That is neither good nor bad, it just is, and it is human nature to want to dodge and weave to survive. It is also human nature to lose sight of the big picture and to start to focus on the knives. In the circus, the target girl has to focus on the crowd (the big picture) and the purpose of the performance. In leadership, we must focus on the purpose and the mission, sometimes letting the knives fall where they may.
The type of personality that I have is one where I want to collect all the knives, stop the performance (in this case organization), arrange all the pieces, you know tidy it up, and then we can resume normal operation. In all my experiences both personal and professional I have not had that luxury. When tragedy met me in my personal life the world did not stop. When chaos met me in my professional life the work did not stop. In all cases I am called to continue to focus on the big picture. Great leaders must look for ways to become professional target men and woman. We have to remain calm when others are not, we have to remain positive when others are not, and we have to remain steadfast through the change. For some of us this analogy of the circus and knife throwing is not too far off for how we feel in our professional lives at times. What can we do?
Breathe. Sounds stupid, but take time to breathe deeply during the day. It is a known fact that concentrating on your breathing can have an immense impact on your stress level.
Remain constant. By that I mean remain the person that your team and organization can count on no matter how many demands are thrown your way.
Gain Trust. Make it a priority to gain the trust of those you lead and serve. How do you do that, simple do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it.
Lean on Others. Don’t feel like you have to do it all.
Get a clown suit and join the circus.
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