Why do we have to have a conversation about maintaining our infrastructure? When you build a road, you know it’s going to deteriorate. You build a bridge, the engineers will tell you upfront what the serviceable life of that bridge will be. And they even have fun graphs that show the downward curve of the bridge’s reliability over time. Are conversations about how we will maintain our business, work, or team infrastructure more difficult topics for some leaders?
Is Maintaining a Dirty Word for Leaders
Today we are talking about why we have to have conversations about maintaining things. I was thinking about a couple of years ago if you’re listening in real time, the political leaders in the United States were negotiating and that might be a generous characterization, but they were negotiating a large infrastructure bill. And if I’m generalizing, one side took the position that infrastructure includes things like roads, bridges, ports, transit systems, the electric grid, and so on. The other position took a broader approach and included items like healthcare, technology, job training, scientific research, and so on in their definition of infrastructure. And if you were paying attention to this, there’s much more nuance in the arguments from both perspectives. But what’s important here is that there’s even a discussion about infrastructure. Both parties agreed they needed to invest in infrastructure. The questions aren’t if they’re what, where, and how much.
My question, the question I want you to pay attention to as a leader is why did, and why do we need to have conversations about maintaining things? So, like I said, when you build a road, you know it’s going to deteriorate. There’s gonna be a replacement cost. Same with bridges. It’s not a surprise, not in the way that like societally, the need for new internet access grew over the past 20 years that kind of crept up and it’s like, okay, we weren’t planning for this, but it’s gonna need to happen. And once it’s done, yes, it’s going to need to be maintained. So why aren’t those costs planned for and incorporated as a normal, regular part of our civic business? And what does that have to do with you as a leader? But the short answer to the question is, we just don’t value maintenance.
And I mean, culturally. I recognize there are many individual citizens, towns and states, and countries that do a wonderful job planning and maintaining their infrastructure. I’m speaking culturally and in the United States where I’m recording and where I live, we emphasize the new, the forward. And we don’t put a lot of focus, energy, or value into keeping things going healthy, and whole. It’s the continual forward focus that is a problem when we look at deteriorating infrastructure. It’s a problem for our budgeting when we save for the house or a car, but we don’t plan for the maintenance cost of those things. Looking for the new, and not the cost of maintenance is also a problem for us in leadership and in relationships. There’s cultural negativity associated with maintaining. I mean, you can even think about the language if we say, “Hey, you’re just maintaining,” you’re confessing to underperforming being a slacker, treading water going nowhere.
Our maintenance workers are arguably some of the most vital people to continue our way of life and the comforts that we take for granted. But maintenance workers don’t get a cultural spotlight. Those jobs aren’t portrayed as shiny and meaningful and popular culture because they don’t uncover, explore, discover what’s new and that’s a natural part of our brain. We like the shiny, we like the new, the things that grab our attention. It’s kind of how we’re wired. But that can have a really damaging impact on us as leaders if we’re not careful about it. Early in my career, I worked for a human service organization whose leader had a strong disdain for maintenance. And he’d frame our work in terms of warfare. You don’t see soldiers storming the beaches at Normandy, stopping and taking care of the injured. He told me that one time and he said, neither can we. We’ve gotta take ground and keep moving forward. For me, I cringe when I replay those words. His values and vision focused entirely on the new and shiny at the cost of caring for the organization that he’d built and the people who were part of it. And you can imagine the culture of chaos that ensues when you’re focused only on the new and maintenance in his view, wouldn’t build the future. And yet maintaining gets us to the future.
So a side note here, I love baking bread in the slow, natural, artisan way. Feed and maintain a starter that is flour, water, yeast, and bacteria, and let it sit till it triples in size. Mix it with flour, water, and a little salt. Give it time, knead it, fold it over the course of three or four hours, you feel the dough come together and the yeast multiplies, and proteins in the flour align and connect. And then you shape the dough a final time, put it in a proofing basket, and give it even more time, sometimes overnight in the refrigerator before you bake it. And while it bakes the aroma temps you, it’s so tempting, you want to cut into that freshly baked loaf. But even then, you’re better to wait a little longer and let the interior cool down and develop all the way. There’s so much maintenance in this bread.
You have to maintain the starter. You have to feed it regularly. The dough is tended and maintained. The bread itself feeds, nurtures, and maintains me, my family, and my friends. Cooking for family and friends brings me joy. And it is maintenance, literal life connection, joy, and energy in fueling and caring for one another. You maintain a friendship by investing in it. You maintain a car with regular service. You maintain the culture of your team by regularly paying attention, investing in it, maintaining your health, and maintaining your relationships. So these acts of maintenance get you to the future in a healthy way so that you can do something meaningful.
So when we’re talking about leadership, what are the acts of maintenance for your team? You know, when we talk about five-by-five communication here at Let’s Grow Leaders, five by five, that if it’s critically important to your team’s success, critical messages, we need to communicate them no less than five times, different times, and five different ways using different communication channels and methods. Why? To help people internalize and to help maintain those messages. So what are the critical outcomes? What does success look like for your team? When was the last time you talked about it? If you’re not reinforcing and maintaining those commitments at the minimum every couple of weeks, they’ll deteriorate. Same thing for your values, the same thing for your conflict conversations, and your accountability. Are you having those conversations in a meaningful way? Same thing for rest and play and all of those elements of what it means for your team to succeed.
Part of your job as an effective leader is to pay attention to maintenance. What does it look like to maintain your team’s health and those ongoing regular activities? No, they’re not as shiny, not as exciting, but they get you to the future where you can do those shiny, meaningful new things. Because life isn’t only maintenance. This is like a yin-yang kind of energy here. If you build your body’s strengths, you need the energy of movement and recovery. You need to run and rest. If you don’t, if one is without the other, you’ll lead to illness or injury. And maintenance is the same way. If you are one of those young filled, high-energy explorer, builder, creator type of leaders who still find maintenance challenging, I’m going to leave you with a thought from the Jason Borne series, not the movies, the books by Robert Ludlum, the author. The character Jason Bourne is constantly remembering sleep is a weapon. So even if you do need to be thinking about moving forward, exploring, building, and creating that new, the sleep and maintenance are going to help you get there and be the leader you’d want your boss to be.