Lead through sacrifice. Throw yourself under the bus

It’s amazing how quickly things can go to hell.

It all started at the project kick off on Monday, the team was discussing the project scope, governance and the sponsor started to comment on the goals.

“We’re here to consolidate the teams, boost productivity and ultimately, make it easier for employees to better serve our customers.”

OK. No worries! Sounds like a good idea!

Yet there was a scratching thought. What exactly does that mean?

I parked that thought, it should all become clear when the team digs into the project.

The project progressed, we became more comfortable and started making progress….or so it seemed.

The weekly meeting rolled around, yet it was as if we were all in separate meetings. No-one was clear on what exactly was required, the high level goals were fine but they lacked the clarity for the next level of direction.

Our path suddenly became terribly hazy, the team became tense, the project stalled in the detail and we’d lost sight of what actually needed to get done.

Ring any bells?


We appealed to the higher level goals which helped us along the path but they were still too fuzzy to provide us the clarity we needed.

Then the realisation hit.

We were stuck because we didn’t know what was actually required and no-one wanted to admit that.

It’s extremely hard to accept, let alone admit, that you don’t know how to do your job as you will feel stupid and question your own credibility.

Nevertheless, we had to get answers and deliver. But how?

We needed a martyr, someone who would throw themselves under the bus for the good of the team.


One item holding us back was the uncertainty and differing opinions on the priorities of which teams were to be migrated in the first release.

That’s when it was thrown out there:

“Sophia, am I correct in saying the Internal Field Support team will be migrated in the next release?”

This was met with a blank face and a look of surprise.

“What?! No, they are to be migrated in the second release.”


There it was! The tip of the clarity iceberg.

From there the digging continued and we walked out with a clear understanding of the next steps.

We were back!


That one simple, seemingly stupid question started the chain reaction to remove the uncertainty.

On reflection though it wasn’t just a simple question at all, it was a purposeful sacrifice to achieve clarity.

Was it admitting we didn’t know something we should have? Yes!

Did the question seem stupid? Yes!

Did Sophia think the answer was obvious? Yes!

Yet, did it force clarity and allow the team to progress? YES!!


Ambiguity and uncertainty is all to common and the gap between a vision and the implementation is usually gaping.

Here’s how we got there and ways to force clarity where none exists.

Sacrifice yourself

Step up and be the leader, throw yourself under the bus and get the answers.

Push your ego aside and accept the temporary hit to your confidence, its more than repaid with the clarity that ensues.

It’s worth checking out Simon Sinek’s long but great talk on this – Why Leaders Eat Last

Force the issue by stating a fallacy

By doing so you’re either forcing people to correct you or agreed with you.

You need a straight answer – a yes or no – so ask a closed, painfully clear question.

Be direct and do NOT soften it. Instead of “…so I guess that means we may be migrating company X next week. Yeah?” try asking “… Will Company X be migrated next week?”

Direct it at an individual

Don’t let it get lost or ignored, it must be clear who needs to respond.

Do NOT mislead – State a fallacy NOT a lie

You’re after clear direction so don’t pollute it any further.

Remember its for the team, do not be malicious or push your own agenda.

It is risky, you will feel stupid yet by sacrificing yourself you’ll get the clarity you need.

The temporary hit is more than paid back by the direction that is provided to the team.


Want Progress? Do Something! Anything!

When I originally started my career I didn’t know what I wanted to be nor in which direction I wanted to go.

All I knew was that I was fairly ambitious, wanted to grow and felt like I could do anything.

Sound familiar?

No amount of career path discussions helped, it did give me an understanding of options but I didn’t know which path I wanted to follow.

This was simply because I hadn’t had any experience to help me understand what I liked, disliked and to guide my direction.

After finishing my degree, I started out as a software developer and was quite happy in my job. For about a year I didn’t make much progress because I didn’t know what I wanted. Rather I focused on doing the job at hand without much consideration for the future.

These seemed reasonably logical, focus on doing my job well and opportunities will come.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate that it was up to me to make these opportunities and go grab them.

I pushed to become more involved in back end development, which was awesome yet wasn’t quite what I was after.

After speaking to the design team I turned my focus to front end development, which was quite enjoyable, but still not right for me.

However, I didn’t feel like I was progressing. Rather, I felt like my time had been wasted as I wasn’t fully satisfied in any of my roles.

Shortly afterwards, I turned to consulting, as I felt I wanted to be on the front line with customers.

Initially this was terrifying. There was immense pressure, you occasionally got yelled at and sometimes the requests just seemed to defy logic.

As I gained experience I started to relish the challenge of delivering the best solution and driving the outcome.

I’d started to find my niche.

Even though initially I had no idea of where I wanted to go taking action was resulting in progress and personal satisfaction.

If I hadn’t taken action I would not have made progress.

I now felt silly at the frustration I felt with my false starts and now realised they were necessary to help me refine my path, correct my actions and drive me forward.

If you feel like you aren’t progressing, regardless of where you are in you career, you must do something, anything to progress. Sitting around feeling sorry for yourself is not going to move you forward and if you are stuck remember the below points

Success comes from failure

When you try something new you’ll quickly discover if it’s for you or not. If you enjoy it, that’s wonderful. If you don’t enjoy it, at least you have gained clarity.  You now know you went in the wrong direction and can correct back on track.

Front end development wasn’t for me and caused me to head in another direction, moving towards being on the front line with customers.

You must create and take your opportunities

By taking action things start to shift, conversations happen and opportunities arise. When they do arise it’s unlikely they will just land in your lap, you need to stretch out and grab them.

Do not expect someone to ask you if you want an opportunity, people are too busy, go and create it yourself.

You must dust yourself off and keep going

It’s rare that you will find what you want in your first attempt. Constantly probing different paths will cause you to refine and discover what you want and need to do to get there.

This can become tiring, demotivating and cause you to question if it’s worth it, however you need to dust yourself off and keep going.

What would have happened if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs gave up? What will happen if Elon Musk gives up?

Do not be afraid to pick the hard path, it is how you will reap the most rewards.

There is no end

You will never end up in the perfect role. Which seems quite demotivating but when you find something you love you’ll be enjoying is so much that you’ll want to dig deeper and find out more.

You’ll become more confident and focused which feeds upon itself to continually progress you.


If you are not where you want to be you need to take action immediately.

Do not be concerned if it’s the correct move or not, the important thing is to get out there and do something.

Through this you’ll refine your path and start to make progress.


Call yourself a leader? Where’s the clarity?

During your career its likely you will encounter periods of massive uncertainty where everything gets turned upside down and there is no clear path to clarity. This may be through an acquisition, retrenchments en masse, a lack of company direction or even having a new-born!

Being in the position where you have to deal with uncertainty means something has gone wrong. In a perfect world this shouldn’t happen but unfortunately life is far from perfect and clarity isn’t always possible.

This is when leaders really need to step up and grab the bull by the horns.

It is the responsibility of leaders to provide clarity and ensure it persists. If you see yourself as a leader, ask yourself if you are doing this. If not, you may need to revisit your perspective on leadership.

Do not fall into the trap that execs and managers are necessarily leaders, leaders are significantly more rare and anyone who helps provides clarity is a leader.

If your business is experiencing periods of uncertainty the below techniques can help leaders shine through the fog of uncertainty and get you to a point of clarity.


  • People want to buy in; listen to their input and take it into account.
  • This cannot be lip service, like a suggestion box at a restaurant. If you are not open to changing your plans, do not bother listening.
  • Listen not only to what is being said but also for the underlying concerns.
    • As a simple example, if someone is asking about why a fellow employee was let go its implicit that they want to understand if their job is secure.
  • You may need to dig deep to get to the real thoughts so be prepared to probe.

Clear communication

  • Be explicit. Clarity cannot exist if everyone understands what is happening and why.
  • The difficult questions are the ones people are most interested in, hence they most important. Do not neglect them, tackle them head on.
  • Be careful not to over communicate, its annoying and will cause people to switch off.

Be Consistent

  • People will look to you to understand how to act, respond and check if your actions match your words.
  • If there is any inconsistency you will lose credibility, traction and hence the clarity you were trying to bring.

Going out of your way, be informal

  • Its ironic however employees often think that the higher ups live in ivory towers that can not be approached.
  • Having informal chats with people, with your guards down, can make people feel closer and more relaxed.
  • Simple gestures such as offering to grab a coffee can go a long way.

Providing direction and clarity is extremely difficult and is really the ultimate test of a leader. Do whatever you can to provide it.

Clarity is truly a strange beast, its invisible when it exists but glaringly obvious when it’s absent.

It’s time to step up.


The Importance of Clarity

If there was one aspect that is critical to all facets of life, it has to be clarity.

Think of all the times you’ve been to the shop after a simple item, such as milk, only to be confronted with low-fat, no-fat, high-calcium, lactose-free (just like the ad), to pick one, hope its correct and then having to do the walk of shame back into the store as you’ve selected the wrong one.

Or that project that seemed to be going fine, then all of a sudden blew up and it was a nightmare to fix.

Clarity is an amazing thing that brings simplicity, better outcomes and makes life significantly easier.

Without clarity there is a jumble of confusion, frustration, helplessness and if not corrected, failure. Without it, there is little point continuing.

You will simply burn time, money and your reserves for dealing with stress.

Be careful to recognise that this is not bidirectional. Confusion and frustration do not necessarily mean the cause is a lack of clarity. This is often stated and it is much easier than actually spending time to diagnose the real problem.

If there is no strategic insight, long term plans nor goals for the future it is likely due to a lack of clarity, but if any of those exist you need to investigate further.

My eyes were opened to the massive importance of clarity after attending a training session with Greg McKeown, an amazing individual and a writer for the HBR.

One of Greg’s more popular articles, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, has quickly become a modern classic, focusing on clarity and the distractions from it.

I strongly suggest following Greg both on Twitter and LinkedIn, he is a very insightful individual.

Unfortunately unclear situations arise too often but there are techniques to tackle it


  • It seems obvious but its amazing how many people don’t do this.
  • Do not assume that the higher-ups hold the tablets of wisdom. They will however have some of the answers.
  • Asking the question shows your concern and highlights the stake you have in the company’s future.
  • In times of uncertainty most leaders will understand your concerns and be willing to spend time to answer questions. Do not take this for granted rather plan your questions in advance and pick a time that suits them.
    • e.g. Friday at 4pm is usually a bad idea
  • You may not like the answers but it will leave you in a more informed position than before.


  • In the absence of a plan, make one.
  • A lack of clarity makes you feel very insecure and helpless. A quick and easy way to regain control is to map out the possible alternative futures, what may occur and your corresponding action plans.
  • Drawing a decision tree is a simple way to do this with each branch spurring other possibilities until you can progress no further. You can find out more info here. You don’t need to follow all the details, just think through the outcomes, options and actions.
  • This is extremely powerful as it instantly gives you control.


  • Leaders will often put up time frames on when to expect further clarity, which is particularly common during acquisitions.
  • Monitor the progress towards clarity as these dates approach, if they do not become clearer or keep sliding back, revisit your plan.


  • As a last resort or in certain uncontrollably circumstances (e.g. macro economic) it may be best to accept the uncertainty. This can bring a feeling of Zen but it rarely progresses you so do be careful.

Clarity is extremely important and the above can help you move through it when it is forced upon you. My next post will flip this around, talking about how leaders can build and maintain clarity so to avoid this problem before it arises.