The Gordian Knot started with a puzzling challenge at the entrance of an ancient city. Greek legend predicted that whoever solved the puzzle would rule most of the known world. When someone says you have “cut the Gordian Knot” they mean you have seized a major opportunity or solved a sticky problem with flair and bold action.
In team and leadership circles we teach this “flair and bold action” with a metaphor-packed training simulation. Mostly blindfolded participants have 15 minutes to work as a team to remove several “challenges” from a large rope. They are allowed up to seven group questions of their team consultant during the test scenario.
Allowing the seven questions during our Gordian Knot simulation is a foundational measure of their probable use of available resources in real settings. It is fascinating to watch how teams react under pressure. Just like in real life many behaviors and actions are unproductive and even harmful in getting the task accomplished — one barks orders, another maintains stubborn silence, an entire subgroup talks at once and an outlier sits on the floor in spiteful protest. The heat rises when some participants see a clear solution, but cannot get others to focus or listen.
Untangling even simulated life challenges brings out the best and worst in many of us. Solutions come in three phases — we build our skills, reframe leadership and honor our brand.
Skills for unraveling: The main skills for success in our simulated test are to select a leader, communicate a strategy and test that communication has led to mutual understanding. Although the clock is ticking and rival groups show frantic activity the teams that apply these skills usually finish the simulation well within the allotted time.
No one leader sees all knots: Reframed leadership means that someone else may be a better leader in certain situations. One person sees the obstacle clearly when others are stressed. Another handles the situation well when diverse people are involved. Still others have done it before and know when and where to acquire needed resources. The breakthrough thinker is usually the one closest to the knot.
Honor your brand to avoid knots: Make a promise — keep a promise. Be and act how you said you would be and act. Keep your cool, seize the opportunity, solve the problem. Knots in a rope have a way of testing your core beliefs.
On Oct. 26, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Chairman Nikita S. Khruschev transmitted a letter to President John F. Kennedy outlining the ramifications of two nuclear powers tugging on opposite ends of a disaster.
“Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war…the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it…let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this. Respectfully yours, N. Khruschev.”
In his historical letter Khruschev masterfully edited the soviet brand of “communism” and “peace for all.” He subtly chastised Kennedy for the U.S. brand of “capitalism” and “brashness.” Both were dangerously clutching opposite ends of a nuclear charged rope. In the end the Soviets blinked and agreed to remove missiles from Cuba.
Most nasty knots can be untied without the threat of global destruction. That jumbled mess of marketing and branding can be sorted out. That tug-of-war between a balanced lifestyle and achieving a legacy can be smoothed into a lifestyle worth living. It helps to make full use of available resources. In more than 25 years of conducting the Gordian Knot team simulation in the U.S., Europe and Canada, no team has ever exhausted all seven questions to the consultant assigned to assist them.
That great ruler in the Gordian Knot legend went by the name Alexander. In 333 BC on his march through Anatolia, he reached Gordium, capital of Phrygia. There he found an old chariot lashed to a post with the most complicated knot anyone had seen. Alexander failed to untie the knot, took out his sword and sliced the bundle of rope in half. He “cut the Gordian knot” and eventually ruled most of Asia.
Rick Griggs is a former Intel Corp. training manager and inventor of the rolestorming creativity tool. He runs the 10-month Leadership Mastery Academy. firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-690-7327.