Sometimes you have to go backward

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I was hanging a drop ceiling in my basement with my father-in-law a back in November. The materials and approach of suspended drop ceilings haven’t much changed since the 1960s. You run long beams perpendicular to shorter cross beams. Those hang from the structural ceiling to support tiles that serve some aesthetic purpose. It isn’t complicated. 

But a half-day into the project, a series of minor decisions had created a major problem. My precise measurements were thrown out. A crucial structural beam was now blocked by my gas pipe. To maximize ceiling height in my home built in the 1890s, I had ignored the recommended distance between my drop ceiling and the rafters. I had a plan. But to make other accommodations, that plan faltered. We tried a few hacks to correct the issue but it got worse.

It wasn’t square. It wasn’t sound. We had a mess.

I had spent several hundred dollars, and much of it was not looking salvageable. My father-in-law and I did see the project more clearly then. We understood where we went wrong. We had a better plan. He suggested we had to call our half-day’s work a loss, aside from the learning, and start again tomorrow. 

Not so long ago, I would never considered the idea of restarting. I would never back track. Forward at all costs. My instincts are still that way. Habits die hard. I put up some resistance to my father-in-law. What if we tried this? Or did that?

But it was clearer to me now. We tore our work down. Salvaged what we could, replaced what we couldn’t. We came back the next day, and we finished the entire project in just a few hours, with our newfound, hard-earned expertise. 

I have to think this is one of the trickiest parts of leading. When you come to an obstacle, how do you know if it’s better to turn back or push through? The actual trick is mostly you won’t know. Talk it through. Try your best. Be honest. Do it for the right reasons—not because you wasted some money, but because you want it done right. Mostly, as I’ve come to know, the most important part is to be decisive, whichever the decision. With the right relationships and the right team, mostly they’ll stand with you.

History is full of leaders who got it right and those who got it wrong. I don’t actually think all the right ones were smarter. Maybe some. But they were also lucky. 

My drop ceiling looks fine. Good enough to never be noticed. A lot of the time, that’s the best leadership you’ll find: Stable, sound and level enough for the focus to be elsewhere.