sirens_and_distractionsYou likely recall reading The Odyssey from freshman literature class back in high school.

Homer’s epic poem focuses on the adventures that Odysseus and his men encounter as they travel back home to the Greek island of Ithaca following the Trojan War.

Most people remember the meeting with the Cyclops, and some can still remember how he and his son violently kill the suitors that had been harassing his loyal wife after he arrived back home.

The Odyssey is both entertaining and didactic, meant to educate young Greeks with lessons about how you should or should not behave, while illustrating the consequences of both good and bad decisions by Odysseus’ and his men along the journey.

But one of the least often discussed parts of their journey may offer the most important lesson for leaders today – sailing past sirens and the importance of avoiding team distractions.

Odysseus and his men, still sailing toward home, approach a group of sirens who live on the rocky mountainside of an island they will be passing.  Odysseus warns his men that these sirens are deadly, and their song will lead to death and destruction.  He fills their ears with wax, and then has his men tie him to the mast of the ship so that he can hear the song and still be protected from its tempting call.

When they pass, Odysseus is nearly driven mad with desire to break free and answer the call of the Siren’s song… but his men wrap the rope around him tighter and keep rowing, eventually moving safely beyond the threat.

So what lessons are applicable from the story for your team?

1) Sail around the distraction. Instead of allowing yourself to be tempted, find a way to keep yourself away from it.  If you are addicted to gambling, don’t go into the casino.  If you are concerned about your weight, don’t stock your kitchen with cookies.  If you know that your friend Bob is negative and critical of your job, stop spending time with him…

2) Protect your team from the temptations on their path.  Odysseus did this by filling his men’s ears with beeswax, but your team will need similar precautions.  If people in your office are constantly distracted by answering emails or social media, set aside a specific hour each day when they are encouraged to focus on those things.  If your athletes are distracted by students or other activities during practice, close the gym to visitors.

3) Accept the distractions, and enlist other’s help to survive them.  Even Odysseus knew that his discipline and determination were not enough to keep him from being affected by the siren’s call… so he enlisted the help of his own men to protect him from his desires.  This option is less comfortable, as it may involve discomfort in the short term in order to safely reach your destination.  Dogs certainly don’t like to have the leash jerked tight when they run off unexpectedly, and your team will likely not like the consequences you may need to put in place to help save them from themselves.  That is why this is the least popular of the three, and one that you should depend upon very rarely.  But asking someone else to help and support you in overcoming a temptation can be very helpful.

Of course, it isn’t just Odysseus and his men that are susceptible to distractions.

See the squirrel?

If you have ever walked a dog, you know what happens when it sees one…

Automatically, every fiber of its being loses focus on the walk, and the dog becomes transfixed on the distraction of the squirrel.

The only way to keep the dog from pulling the leash and running wild are to

1) take walks where there are no squirrels,

2) put blinders on the dog or train him so he doesn’t think react to them, or

3) keep the dog on a tight leash so that even while tempted, he will stay focused on your commands.

This is the same challenge that Odysseus faced with his men, and the one that you face with your team every single day.

Even when you and your team have identified a compelling common goal and established roles and relationships for the journey, distractions can throw a wrench into your plans.

A leader’s job is not only to chart the course, but to also find out and prepare for the obstacles that may lie waiting which could slow down or endanger their success.

What examples of team distractions have you seen in your organization?

If your group has lost focus, or needs a day of fun relationship building challenges to boost morale and improve team communication, consider a day of team building for business.