What Crabs in a Pot Have to Do with Leadership Presence

Posted 11.21.2011

Last week, I spent an afternoon sparking a conversation on leadership presence with a group of rising leaders in a well known organization. The conversation turned to how difficult it can be to lead change because there are often a lot of structures and norms in place that create massive barriers to change. That’s where leadership presence becomes so critical. Leaders recognize the resistance and figure out ways to move past it. The first step in doing so is not getting pulled back into the churn.

To illustrate that point last week, I told a story that I don’t usually tell in professional settings but it just seemed right at the time. When I was growing up in Huntington, West Virginia, my best friend was a guy named Ty Neal.  One night when we were in high school, we were hanging out in Ty’s basement when his dad, Ted, got home from a meeting at the American Legion hall.  He yelled down and asked us to come upstairs for a talk.

He began by asking if we’d ever seen crabs in a pot getting boiled. We said sure but weren’t sure where he was going with this.  “Here’s the thing, he said, there will always be one crab who gets his claw up on the rim of that pot and is just about ready to pull himself out of there.  And then the other crabs will grab him and drag him back into the pot.  They’re not getting out of there, but they’re going to make sure he’s not getting out either. Both of you guys are smart and talented. You could go places. Don’t let them drag you back into that pot, boys.”

Mr. Neal shared a lot of wisdom with Ty and me back in the day but the crabs in the pot story is the one that I’ve always remembered. One of the big challenges of leadership is not getting pulled back into the pot. It’s about understanding what the current reality is (i.e.  it’s hotter than hell in here and if we don’t get out, we’ll be cooked) and influencing others to come with you to something better while resisting their efforts to pull you back in.

At the suggestion of a friend and client, I read most of Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin, over the weekend. It’s a provocative read and I recommend it. Godin’s point is that the people who make the biggest difference and become indispensable are the ones who break out of the structures of resistance and connect with other humans to do remarkable things. They’re the linchpins. Being a linchpin can be scary. Here’s what Godin has to say about that:

“If you seek to become indispensable, a similar question is worth asking: ‘Where do you put the fear?’  What separates a linchpin from an ordinary person is the answer to this question.  Most of us feel the fear and react to it.  We stop doing what is making us afraid.  Then the fear goes away.

The linchpin feels the fear, acknowledges it, then proceeds.  I can’t tell you how to do this; I think the answer is different for everyone.  What I can tell you is that in today’s economy, doing it is a prerequisite for success.”

Linchpins are leaders. They’re the crabs who pull themselves out of the pot and bring the rest of the crabs with them.

What have you learned so far about overcoming resistance, not getting pulled back in and bringing others with you?

P.S.  You know from reading this what I’ve been up to over the years. If you’re wondering about Ty, he’s the co-founder and co-owner of a restaurant group in D.C.  called Matchbox.  I wrote about him a couple of years ago.  Their newest restaurant brand is named Ted’s Bulletin in honor of his dad.