The problem with musical chairs

You walk into a room. In that room are your coworkers. Some are good friends. Most are not.


You look around the room and see chairs all around. And in the middle is a table with a set of speakers. A person walks in and announces to the whole group that there is a critical need for everyone to sit down in the room. ‘But first some music will play and everyone will circle the room.’ they say kindly. ‘Then when the music stops every one in the room is each personally responsible for finding themselves a seat. It is most important that everyone has a seat and through cooperation we will accomplish that.’ and with that last statement they exit the room.

Somehow this sounds vaguely familiar to you. But you shrug your shoulders and wait.

The music begins, a bright marching chorus filled with horns and stringed instruments. You and the rest of the group begin awkwardly circling the room.

About a minute after you start circling you suddenly notice something odd. There appears to be fewer chairs than people. You count in your head again. No, you are sure this time. There are 10 people but only 7 chairs.

You tap the shoulder of the person in front of you, James from the Widget Office. ‘James. James, there are not enough chairs…’ James seems to ignore or not hear you. So you tap harder, visibly making James flinch under your stiff finger. ‘JAMES’ you say with a strong voice over the music. ‘There are only 7 CHAIRS. But 10 of US.’ James quickly glances back with a fearful look on his face and and waves his hand at you dismissively.

You feel confused. James seemed irritated and maybe a little scared with your information. You look back at Selma from the Counters Team. She is looking at you with a confident smirk. She heard your interaction with James. ‘Well, I don’t know about you. But I will have no problem finding MY seat. Maybe you should focus on your seat rather than worrying about others’ she snaps at you. Then she looks off into the distance with her confident smirk.

Now you are really confused. Why would we be doing this? Why is everyone ignoring the problem in the room? If it is important that everyone finds a seat and there are not enough seats, then we should be focusing on getting more chairs rather than marching to the music. What happens to those left standing?

As you look around the room you realize what is happening. Some people look you in the eyes with concern. They see you understand and their eyes are almost a warning. Some look at you with coldness. You can almost feel them counting you as one of the unlucky 3. And the rest stare straight ahead looking at no one. They are focusing on being ready for when the music stops.

The music builds and builds. Its volume increases and you feel the climax coming. Then suddenly, it stops…

Failure is not always a surprise. Sometimes it is seen well ahead of time. Integrity is calling out risks even if you may not be the one left standing. The difference between a leader and a follower is the ability to ask for more chairs when the time comes. Even if it means pausing the music. The leader is concerned with the group success and not just the odds of personal failure.

And always count the chairs.


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