Do You Need a 'Sanity Check?'


By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute

When I was a student, I had a professor who brought in successful business leaders from the local area. There was one entertaining CEO who visited and used the term "sanity check." I thought it was an interesting concept, and, a few weeks ago, I had an experience that drove the sanity check meaning home quite clearly. 

My wife and I were driving along and suddenly experienced a flat tire. I probably had not changed a flat in 40 years. Changing a tire is very different now from what it was when I was younger. There are still lug nuts, although some of them lock on. There used to be a full-size spare, and it was pretty intuitive what to do. Now, things are unbelievably well engineered almost to the point of some components being hidden!

To get the mini-spare out of its well, I had to crank it down on a cable. The tire came down, and the cable was fully extended, so I grabbed it thinking it was ready for mounting on the rim. It was not! The spare was mounted onto the cable with a rectangular hockey puck-like chunk of plastic. There was no obvious way to unscrew or unclip the mechanism. I turned the spare around this way and that, looked at it, pulled on it, and cursed at it - all to no avail. There was just no way to get that hockey puck off!

My wife asked to take a look. Exasperated, I moved aside to another task while muttering under my breath that she’d have no more luck then me. I was ready to call roadside assistance; I was desperate and ready to get the problem solved even if it cost me a few bucks. After a minute, my wife took the hockey puck and, although it was much too large to push through the rim when horizontal, she simply turned it 90°, and it slipped right through! Suddenly we were off and running. We mounted the spare and resumed our trip home. 

Now, what does all this have to do with the construction industry? And how can you use this information? Even the very best leaders need help from their teams. In this case, I took the lead on changing the flat, but my wife demonstrated the value of situational leadership. I was stymied; she stepped in, looked at the issue with a new set of eyes, considered alternatives I had not, innovated, and found what should have been an obvious answer.

Sometimes leaders are blind, as I was, to different possibilities and ways of doing things. Sometimes leaders are just flat out wrong. They interpret things wrong or somehow just don't see the entire picture. The classic business case for leaders getting things wrong is New Coke. If you're old enough to remember the introduction of New Coke, you will recall the incredible marketing effort and fanfare associated with it.

This revolutionary new soft drink turned into a marketing and sales disaster! It is probably the most famous flop in modern business history. In hindsight, can you imagine taking a brand as iconic as Coke and tossing it out the window in favor of some new, focus group-approved concoction? The leaders who introduced New Coke must not have subjected themselves to sanity checks (or perhaps their culture did not allow for teams to question their exalted leaders). 

Business is more and more about teams and teamwork, and a leader needs a team of equals. The old model of having a monarch with a gaggle of subservients who rely on the king to make every decision, in his infinite wisdom, is long gone. The best leaders today have teams of equals, and the equals push them, challenge them, push each other, challenge each other, and together they evaluate all kinds of different alternatives and possibilities. They debate and sometimes even disagree with each other.

When there are differences, they work together collegially, and the fact is that differences and debate among teams makes for stronger business decisions. Thinking back to my college business class, I would say that the definition of sanity check is having a team of equals that pushes a leader and to whom the leader listens. And that’s a key; leaders must listen to their teams so they can “get the tire changed" and continue their business journeys.