Dead Birds and Brain Trusts

So, fair warning. This story is a bit of a trip. There just isn’t any way to tell it delicately and so…strap in. Maybe I’ll throw a “yo diggity” in there every so often to lighten the mood.

A few days ago, my family and I found a dead bird on our deck. With a passing glance, one of my kids did a ceremonial “awwww, that’s so sad – should we bury it?” But, I was busy doing whatever I was doing that particular night, and so I all but ignored it (cue the foreshadowing, of course). The next morning, I was doing the breakfast dishes when, typical for me, my mind had floated off to what I’d be working on that day, who I’d be meeting with, etc. etc. Well, actually. wait. Hold up a second.

Renaissance Partners have been in the creation process with a set of keynotes and coaching products that we think the world needs right now. What matters right at the dead bird moment is that, in the week before the bird incident, we had decided to enlist a brain trust to give us feedback on this new product. If you’re new to that phrase, a “brain trust” simply means the intentional use of a group of people to lend their criticism, expertise and feedback to you when you’re about to make a big move. Did we get the product just right? Does it have legs? What did we miss? We really want to get this one right, and so the brain trust was enlisted.

At its core, brain trust are really about a discernment process. New ideas must be tested for their mettle, and to get there, the haver-of-the-idea must open their beloved little inventions to shots of every kind. I know this, because I am an Inventor of epic proportions, and after many falls on this front, I have learned that only a few of my ideas are good ones. I can either face the brain trust, or I can make epic errors while I run my business into the ground, and so I’ve learned: trust the discernment process.

“Mature leaders are usually marked by a clear muscle for holding two opposing things at once, such as the tension between performance management and people development.”

One of the things brain trusts do is to increase tensions that need increasing. If all is going as it should, leaders will live with tensions that create nearly irresistible inclinations to simplify things that shouldn’t be simplified. Mature leaders are usually marked by a clear muscle for holding two opposing things at once, such as the tension between performance management and people development. It is real, and it is uncomfortable, and there is nothing to be done about it, except to grow a tolerance for it. The tension of being both tough and kind is another such example, as is the tension of pressing forward while also leaning back. Well, if I were to name one of the toughest tensions that I have personally had to learn to live with, I would say that it has been the tension between humility and confidence. I feel the deep importance of, as Adam Grant puts it, the importance of “knowing what we don’t know,” and keeping ego at bay because -I’ve seen it a thousand times- it is a kiss of death to our marriages, our leadership, or our organizations when we fill up with pride and arrogance. But, on the other hand, we need to own our own uniquely connected ideas. We need to proceed feeling like we know what we’re doing and where we’re going, or else we’ll become weathervanes that blow whichever way the wind goes. We need our own ideas to be clear-eyed and unapologetic. It’s a heck of tension, as they all are.

Back to the dishes. I was, at that moment, a million miles away, making up a story in my head that went like this: “Screw the brain trust! I KNOW where this needs to go! I don’t need any input, I’m sick of dithering about this and I JUST WANT TO GET THIS THING TO MARKET!” I have a hasty streak, you see. I get sick and tired of things moving too slowly, and I was bent and determined that the thing I needed to do was to abort the brain trust (thereby lowering the tension) and get on with things. And right at that moment, I looked out my window. Consider me straight-up dumbfounded.

As though fossilized somehow, that freaking dead bird had left a near-perfect impression of itself splat against our window. There it was, like a ghost bird, with its eyes, beak, and little legs in a perfect, distinct form, glittering in the sunlight, while the REAL bird was -I assure you- very much dead on my deck.

I mean…can you feel me? Wings raised, mid-flight, without question. Gaze straight forward, full of intention. Body, full of momentum, accelerating forward. In just one second, that poor bird went from a confident, untethered little soul…to dead as a doorknob and, adding insult to mortal injury, lying in a pile of the family dog’s poop!

Brain trusts will have some things to say that make us feel uncertain, and that may make us want to power through, plunge forward, up our momentum, accelerate our confidence, and make this simpler!

I’ll get to the point. Brain trusts will have some things to say that will make us feel uncertain, and that may make us want to power through, plunge forward, up our momentum, accelerate my confidence, and make all of this simpler! And I almost did, which could have very well landed me facedown in a pile of poop. But, the process worked. The brain trust makes the whole product better. Oh, and I’ve got to tell you. For the past few days, whenever one of us here at the office starts talking with a leeeeetle bit too much confidence, another one of us will pretend to flap these giant pretend wings and “CA CAWWW,” just like Moira when she was filming the mother crow scene in Schitt’s Creek. It’s got me in total hysterics and, mark my words, it’s going to be the next TicToc sensation.

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