Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide
“They are supposed to be our partners but they are going behind our backs to a third party to complain about us when they’re the ones who are not delivering,” said a founder to me recently.
“Ah,” I replied. “They’re using a water strategy. Let’s think about the best way to respond.”
For decades now, I have been teaching a tool adapted from The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi based on martial arts. I use it to help founders figure out quickly how to respond to a person or situation. What I love about it is that it is very intuitive. Once you hear it, you can immediately put it to use. It describes four strategic options. You figure out which the other party is using and then choose which makes sense in reponse. Or if you are the first mover, which is best given the circumstances. They are:
FIRE: Moving forward
Orientation to the future, to making something happen.
This is the strategy of passionately pushing for what you want. When used well, it comes across as inspirational, creative, optimistic, visionary. Typically this is the common strategy of founders. It’s exciting. We want to share in the exciting idea. When done poorly, it can be impulsive, aggressive or angry, speedy. You end up perhaps burning down relationships in your path. In this circumstance, it would be calling up the partner and telling them in no uncertain terms that you will not put up with their talking behind your back.
WATER: Moving around to move forward
Orientation towards others who are in your way.
Like fire, this is a moving strategy, but rather than burning down obstacles, you go around them just like water in a river goes around rocks to get to the ocean. When used well, you come across as flexible, likable, creative. When used poorly, this strategy can come across as behind the back, sneaky, and/or afraid of rejection. I used to have an employee who did this—I would tell her no and she would go do it anyway! In this circumstance, it would be going to the third party without talking to the partner, just like they did.
AIR: turning away
Orientation to ideas, “in the head.”
This is the strategy of understanding and perspective giving. Think of the sky, offering the big picture. When used well, it offers clarity, an objective view. When overused or done at the wrong time, it can come across as “in head,” uncaring, perfectionistic, or controlling. This strategy is what I spend most of my time doing with founders. In this circumstance, it would sound like, “Oh, they are doing that because they are ashamed of not delivering and think that if they throw you under the bus first, they’ll look better.”
GROUND: Not moving, making others move
Orientation to self, what you will not do.
This is the strategy of “no—I will not be moved.” Think of a mountain. When used well, it creates clear, firm boundaries. When used poorly, it can come across as negative, stubborn, unbending. In this case, it might entail being clear you won’t partner unless they agree to joint meetings.
Typically, we have habits and overdo one or more of these and consequently underuse others. My habit is definitely Air, as I said. But the point of this awareness is to begin to be strategic, not just habitual. To pause when a situation arises and ask yourself, “What is the best option given the reality of what is going on?” Sometimes, it’s a combination. Often an Air strategy is the place to start to better understand what is going on before choosing one of the others.
In the case of my founder, after doing Air with me, she decided on a Water strategy and went to the third party herself with the facts because she had tried a direct approach before with little success. And it worked—she’s now working directly with the third party and has ended the relationship with the problematic partner.
And while it would be lovely to think everyone can just choose based on what strategy is best, there are gender and racial issues here as well. Female founders, particularly black women, have told me that Fire strategies have to be very well thought through because of “bitchy woman,” or “angry black woman” stereotypes, which is why they often choose Water or Air instead. This reality is one of the many reasons I work with SheEO—so that in the future, this will not have to be a consideration at all.