On May 24, 1924 a Massachusetts newspaper printed an instance with a Boston setting. A police officer saw a man on his hands and knees “groping about” around midnight and asked him about his unusual behavior: 1
“I lost a $2 bill down on Atlantic avenue,” said the man.
“What’s that?” asked the puzzled officer. “You lost a $2 bill on Atlantic avenue? Then why are you hunting around here in Copley square?”
“Because,” said the man as he turned away and continued his hunt on his hands and knees, “the light’s better up here.”
Abraham H. Maslow referenced the joke by applying it to his own profession. In “Motivation and Personality”, he wrote:
Ultimately this must remind us of the famous drunk who looked for his wallet, not where he had lost it, but under the street lamp, “because the light is better there,” or of the doctor who gave all his patients fits because that was the only sickness he knew how to cure.
It applies to us even today, since this seems to be a human problem that all leaders struggle with. In fact, it even has a name: the streetlight effect. (Or as it is fondly know, the ‘drunkard’s search’).
This observational bias is so pervasive, we may even twist it into positives:
‘Play to your strengths’.
The problem is that your strengths may not be what the company needs or the problem requires.
‘Fish where the fish are’.
The problem is that everybody fishes where the fish are - the ‘red ocean’ scenario.
The starting point for a successful leader and manager must normally be to ask what the desired (right/best) outcome is; then create solutions and strategies that matches that.
It may seem an archaic notion, but leadership requires bravery. Leadership requires you to step outside your comfort zone. Not to focus on the low-hanging fruit, but to pick the fruit that actually needs to be picked.
Go from the easy, to the whatever is required, even if it is hard.
Go from the light to the dark, if that is where the problem is.
Don’t be afraid.