There is a fable that succinctly illustrates the difference between being reactive and proactive. Often, people don’t have the resources (time, money, energy) to solve both the problems and what causes them. They become absorbed in the urgency of fixing the problem (doing good works “downstream”) instead of focusing “upstream” on the source of the issue. This fable shows that while there are notable improvements in the response, it is still a never-ending cycle without curing the root cause.

Child welfare workers, from where this story originated, can work mightily to improve foster care or move upstream to reform the causes that remove children from their families in the first place. Wellness professionals can provide convenient weight loss programs or work to promote healthy eating that prevents obesity. Colleges can invest in excellent tutoring and academic success programs or collaborate with secondary (or elementary schools) to increase student preparedness upon graduation.

Middle managers are especially susceptible to this narrow thinking as their daily work revolves around being passionate about getting things done without necessarily linking it to the system or big picture. It becomes the job of the executive or higher-level manager to see beyond the surface and understand the system at a deeper level, strategically recommending changes “upstream” in the organization or industry.

If you are an entry-level staff member or someone just climbing the ranks, taking time to intentionally think about the larger environment is an excellent training tool for future growth. Share this fable with colleagues and incorporate the “upstream-downstream” language into your meetings, planning and conversations. The most important thing you can do “downstream” is eliminate the need for it.

Thanks, Alia for sharing!

I'm the chief connector at leadership dots where I serve as "the string" for individuals and organizations. Like stringing pearls together to make a necklace, "being the string" is an intentional way of thinking and behaving – making linkages between things that otherwise appear random or unconnected – whether that be supervising a staff, completing a dissertation or advancing a project in the workplace. I share daily leadership dots on my blog to provide examples of “the string” in action. I use the string philosophy through coaching, consulting and teaching to help others build capacity in themselves and their organizations. I craft analogies and metaphors that help people comprehend complex topics and understand their role in the system. My favorite work involves helping those new to supervision or newly promoted supervisors build confidence and learn the skills necessary to effectively lead their team.

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