Sour Milk and Leadership

I know. It’s completely un-lady-like to drink milk straight from the container. However, occasionally when I’ve needed an ibuprofen for a headache to get to sleep and to put a little something in my stomach, I’ve reached straight for the container so as not to turn on all the lights or make too much noise. The last time I succumbed to this primitive, nocturnal behavior, I was already in mid-gulp before it registered on my taste buds and hit my brain… this carton of milk is sour!

Even though I rinsed thoroughly and downed an entire glass of water to clear the nasty taste… it lingered, perhaps just in my mind, and I swear I could still smell and taste it the next morning. The sour look on my face as I poured my first cup of coffee must have belied my nocturnal antics to anyone else in the room.

At a recent team meeting of a very large group practice, I swear that 90% of the attendees seemed to have the exact same look on their faces. Sour and frowning, they reminded me of people suffering from a mild case of constipation… slightly uncomfortable and largely irritated. With every issue someone raised, they were mostly resigned and negative, or worse… silent with only mild eye-rolling to communicate their lack of enthusiasm. Except for one.

She was relaxed but alert, soft-spoken but with powerful intention and clarity. It would have likely been easier to “join the crowd” than to stand out in this group as a positive beacon but she seemed un-phased by her colleagues’ attitudes. She raised bright ideas and alternatives, and asked questions directly to different team members like, “What if we could find a way to introduce financing to every patient without sounding salesy? Would you be willing to try it and report back at our next meeting as to the results, whether improved or not so we could adjust from there?” “How could we support you in finding a way to use the camera more in your operatory?” Or she would make encouraging statements such as, “We’ve overcome much worse in the past. I’m positive we’ll either find the answer ourselves or between all of us, find someone who can.”

At one point, as the tide of attitudes slowly started to turn in her favor, a teammate tentatively ventured out to offer an idea to a challenge and she offered with a smile, “I’d rather try an idea like yours and fail (at the least we could rule that one out!) than to keep doing what we’re doing and continue to be frustrated? What about all of you?”

It was nearly impossible to continue to look like you’d just tasted sour milk against the onslaught of her verbal leadership and optimism. She had chosen great “words” and communicated them well, but more importantly she had chosen those words from a platform of immense leadership. This emotional framework from which she spoke assumed that there was no challenge for which there was no answer or relief, that resources for finding help and ideas were abundant, and that her teammates were not “wrong” for being frustrated or disagreeing. She had no need to be “right” but was never swayed from a positive expectation of the future or the team’s ability to navigate it.

THIS is the emotional intelligence of great leadership. It’s a set of assumptions that reframes communication so you are open, appreciative, non-threatened and nonplussed when others around you are speaking from a negative perspective. It is a courageous stance of standing your ground and believing that everything serves and all is well.

This week, don’t wait for the leader in your group to show up and communicate strength, passion, optimism, and resourcefulness. Be that one. It’s often all that it takes to turn the tide.

And always smell the milk before you drink.

This week, while Katherine joins fellow speakers and consultants at SCN’s annual meeting,
we are recycling a favorite MMS from a few years ago. Our new subscribers will enjoy
Katherine’s story and the lessons she took from the experience. And to all of our MMS readers
who have been loyal subscribers from the beginning… you’ll remember why we love seeing
the world of business and life through the eyes of The Lioness.


“Good leadership includes the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions
so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them.”
~~Paul Hawken