What Clams Taught Me About Leadership

I owned a telecommunications integration firm from 1987 until 2008. And while the company was located in Rhode Island I spent almost two years working exclusively in Manhattan from 1999 to 2000. (More about my background here.)

What an experience! For those of you who have never had the opportunity to work in Manhattan for any extended period of time I have to tell you there is nothing like it.

One of the things that stood out the most to me about “the city” was how rich in resources it is. There is a staggering amount of human capability and financial capital located within a cab’s ride across town and an elevator ride up a high rise.

I was there as part of a team who was attempting to secure $25 to $50 million to fund a Smart Building strategy that we were hoping to eventually take to an IPO.

This was at the height of the technology boom and being in Manhattan meant that I was in its financial and innovation epicenter. This was in a place and at a time when Hi-Tech was attracting some of the most talented, creative and innovative people ever to convene around the industry, including the cast of characters with whom I was partnered. They were as diverse as they were brilliant. A few of them were also quite eccentric.

For example, amongst the finance guys was a business manager for several well known music groups of the 90’s, the CEO was a brilliant, but quite strange. He was an innovator who started one of the first non-AT&T long distance companies. He also painted his toenails red and green during Christmas even though he was Jewish.

One of our fundraisers was an ex-Division 1 college linebacker who could sell water to a drowning man but who also buzz cut his hair and dyed it bright yellow…not blonde….before a big meeting. His reason? Because someone bet him he wouldn’t. These two were balanced out by the addition of an intensely smart paramilitary like technology consultant; a 70 year old corporate marketing guru who had helped build brands such as Nestle and a certifiable genius who was as brilliant as he was funny and who also appeared, on the surface, to be just a normal guy.

Then there was me, a relatively practical thinking guy who was charged with making certain the solution we were promoting would actually work, and that this group of people would actually function as a team. Some days this was like herding cats on LSD into a bag of catnip. Not an easy task.

But learning to work with such a unique blend of brilliant people at such a high stakes game taught me much about how to align very talented people with complex personalities and large egos to achieve a common objective.

In the end, although we came close on several occasions to getting funded, we couldn’t pull it off before the bubble burst.

The point of that story is to tell you this story.

Jason was one of the guys I worked with on this team. And this effort was a bit of a side gig for him.

His real talent was that he was a mathematical genius. He was young, brilliant, funny  and had the ability to process thinking and innovate unlike anyone I had ever met.

But one of the most powerful lessons that I learned from Jason was not about math. It was about leadership and it came from a pet project he was working on while he was working with us to launch our initiative.

What I learned from him ended up serving as a metaphor for one of the most important leadership lessons I have ever learned and one that I probably use every single day.

What do Bivalve Mollusks and Humans Have in Common?

We both “clam up” under stress.

When I met Jason he and a few colleagues had just developed a “water monitoring system using bivalve mollusks”. In other words he figured out a methodology for measuring the level of toxicity of a water supply by using clams.

This is the essence of his invention (in laymen’s terms):

Clams feed by filtering water through their “mouths” while being stationary. If they sense toxins in the water their defense is to close their shells or to “clam up”. This prevents the toxins from entering their system. Then, after a while, they slowly open their shells to literally “test the waters” to determine if it is safe to open up again.

So their environment is toxic they seek safety behind their shells. Then when their environment is healthy the clams are open.

The essence of Jason’s invention was that he figured out a way to monitor the various shell positions of the clams from “open” to “closed”. He was able to do this by attaching special sensors to their shells and monitoring them using specially designed algorithms and a laptop. This process allowed him to determine whether the clams’ environment was healthy or toxic based upon the open/closed position of their shells.           

The Leadership Lesson

As I began thinking more about Jason’s work and the clam’s natural reaction to threats I began to see a very clear correlation between clams and people: We both clam up under stress. It is just as much in our nature to clam up when we sense our environment is becoming toxic to our well-being as it is in the clams’ nature.

As I thought more about this, I realized that two of the main toxins that will quickly pollute a human environment are criticism and judgment; especially in public environments. When people encounter either of these toxins they “clam up”, shut down and/or distance themselves from both the environment in which it is occurring as well as from the person responsible. If that person happens to be their manager you then have the beginnings of a problem in that employees who have “clammed up” do not offer their thinking, their ideas or their warnings of emerging problems. They tend to isolate and have low levels of engagement. All of which is almost imperceptible to the manager because it is difficult to see something that isn’t happening.

To further complicate things people, just like clams, take a while to open back up once they have clammed up and have retreated into their shells. It then, just like with the clams, takes a while to get them to open back up again. They are cautious and untrusting. And, in the case of people, depending upon how toxic the environment is it could take a very long time for them to trust enough to open up again and come out of their shells.

There is not a lot one can do to expedite that process either. So, patience is called for. It should be noted that once a clam has clamped shut it cannot be forcibly opened without killing them. Now I am not suggesting that if you try forcing someone to open up that you will kill them, but you could cause them to tighten up even more and eventually kill any hopes of having a healthy relationship with them.

When people do open back up they do so cautiously; opening a bit to test the environment and waiting to see if it is safe. If it is then they will open a bit more, while being sensitive to the slightest indication of a return of the threat.

If the threat does return they will clam up even faster than before and most likely for a longer period of time.

What Can You Do to Create a Toxin-Free Environment?

Let’s face it organizations, like nature can never be completely toxin-free, nor do they have to be in order for them to function well. In addition, as a manager, you cannot guarantee that you won’t have a bad day or that something you do or say will not upset someone who may be overly sensitive.

What you can do though is to understand the impact on your environment you create with your words and actions. Then be aware of when you may have added a toxin and address it to clear the air. (Or the water in this case.)

Be certain to remember that once people have clammed up it may take them a while to open up again. It is also important to remember that while you may have the power to clam them up, it is they who decide when they open up.

One of the most effective ways to expedite this process is to being with an appropriate acknowledgement of your misstep with an attempt to make things right with authenticity, integrity and respect. You may also need to exercise patience and discipline as you give them some space if they need it to find their way back to normalcy and you can practice ways on how to win challenging conversations with the most challenging types of employees.

So, if you end up polluting your environment respond consciously to rectify the situation. Then allow nature to take its course as things eventually get back to normal.

Be certain to use the situation as a learning experience about yourself, your counterpart(s) and what happened that created the toxin. Then take the opportunity to strengthen the bond of trust between everyone involved. That way you ensure that the experience works to create resilient relationships instead of toxic ones.

If you enjoyed this read I would also recommend you read this article on Forbes.com where I was invited to join a panel and comment on "10 ways to approach a rising star when they are underperforming".