This is a chapter from Judy Brown’s book
The Art and Spirit of Leadership
ISBN: 978-1-4660-1049-2 ©
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The Rule of Six
The Rule of Six is a Native American practice for expanding the possible theories we might hold about an event, or something that is challenging us. It requires that we come up with six possible theories of what’s going on, and as we do, we expand the data we are conscious of. Six ways to think about what we might call a problem. Thus we are less likely to move forward precipitously and dangerously.
How do we use The Rule of Six ? I say to groups I am working with, “Think of something that you are trying to figure out, that is important, and that baffles you. For instance, an employee who is underperforming.”
“So what’s our first theory about what’s going on? Mine is usually that the person is lazy, not nearly as hard working as I thought, unmotivated.”
People nod. But then someone says, “Maybe the person doesn’t know how to do the job.”
“Or,” someone else chimes in, “Maybe they have trouble at home.”
Another says, “Or they have responsibility for an aging parent.”
Someone else adds, “Maybe they are sick and just got a scary diagnosis.”
“Or,” says another, “They are sick but they don’t realize it yet.”
Within minutes, the group has spun out six credible theories for why the person might be underperforming. I admit to the group that if I’d latched onto the first idea that sprang into my mind (lazy, unmotivated), I’d have opted for either firing them or trying to inspire them. Neither of which would provide much leverage on a health problem.
Generating the six possibilities makes us curious about what might be going on—even beyond the six. “Yes, but,” people squawk, “We have to make quick decisions. We can’t be spinning out six possibilities when we have to make a decision.”
“Oh,” I explain, “The Rule of Six doesn’t suggest not acting. You must move forward in responsible ways. The Rule of Six only requires holding six possibilities in your consciousness and continuing to learn from incoming data about all six possibilities. It doesn’t stop you from acting; it only increases the likelihood that you will notice more data and act more responsibly and wisely.”
“With The Rule of Six, your decision is a working hypothesis, not an unchangeable decision. For instance, after consideration, you might not opt for the ‘quick fix’ resulting from your favorite or first conclusion. You might instead, having in mind several possibilities, choose to have a conversation with the employee about what you are observing, and an open inquiry about what, from the employee’s point of view, is going on. “
“Well,” folks will say, “The employee example is an easy one, but can this be used on big organizational matters? On more complex matters?”
“Yes,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I used it once on a family business dilemma that had the potential to bankrupt our family.” Reluctant to revisit the painful events that prompted this use of The Rule of Six, nonetheless, I fess up:
Many years back our family had a large Holstein dairy operation on the high plateau of Western Maryland. In partnership with a local family (we lived near Washington DC and had jobs there), we milked 70 some cows, and had close to 150 animals. And each year, for about 10 years, it seemed as if the dairy farm was just about to break even. But it never did. It was beautiful, but a continual economic drain.
Each year one crisis or another hit us. One year the snows closed the road to the farm, and we had to dump milk on the snow because the milk truck couldn’t get to us. Another year, there was an invisible problem with stray voltage, so when each cow tried to drink water from her drinking fountain in the milking barn, she got a shock on her nose, so she stopped drinking and the milk production went down. It took months to figure out the problem and fix it.
And everything was heavily mortgaged—even the cows—so the operation had huge downside potential for everyone associated with it. It needed every penny of income it could produce.
I had grown so desperately frustrated with the financial pressures of this enterprise, and the sense of personal responsibility to earn more and more money to keep it afloat, that I was ready to pitch the whole thing—close it down. Even if it bankrupted us.
But thankfully, on a drive from Maine to Maryland to handle yet another crisis, we began to explore The Rule of Six, to sketch scenarios for the future of the farm.
One was the dairy farm equivalent of a “nuclear winter” scenario: we sell everything, land, cows, farm machinery, everything, and figure on bankruptcy.
But as we talked, other possibilities emerged as well. We could sell just the cows, and get out of the dairy business entirely, then we could rent the dairy barn and milking operation to someone else who had cows. So that was option two. Seemed unlikely, but not impossible.
Or we could turn the 450 acres back into a crop farm and lease it back to the Mennonite family from whom we’d bought it. No cows on the land at all. It was not clear how that would work economically, but it was credible. It became option three.
Option number four was to link up the farm with a nearby university environmental education program and have the farm function as an environmental learning lab. That fit our values as educators and environmentalists.
Option five came out of my leadership work: we could use the house and land as a retreat center for executives wanting to learn leadership in a natural setting, and to learn the leadership lessons that we can take from nature.
And option six, seemingly way out, but appealing to my animal-loving step-son, was to turn it into an animal rescue site. Well, there it was. Six possible paths.
“So what happened?” people asked me eagerly.
“In an odd way, almost every scenario came into play over the twenty years that followed that conversation.” I said.
“We did sell the cows and managed to lease the dairy operation to another family that owned cows but had just lost their lease.“ That took some pressure off us. After that it be came clear that we had other options than to be dairy farmers ourselves.
Then one day a rat chewed through a wire in the dairy barn, and the place caught fire. The barn burned to the ground. Thank Heavens the people’s cows were all out in the pastures! A knee-jerk reaction might have been to rebuild immediately, but because we had so many possible scenarios conscious in our minds, we took a breath and decided not to rebuild, using the insurance settlement to pay off our debt. That, too, gave us some breathing room.
Then, no longer needing the land to support a sizable dairy herd, we invited the Mennonite family who had had been the prior owners of most of the acreage, to lease it back as a crop farm. They were happy to do that, and to this day they maintain the crop farming operation. And without dairy partners who needed housing, we could rent out the houses. That provided some new income.
I experimented with retreats and leadership programs at the farm, but soon learned that catering for large groups, out of a one hundred year old barn was far from my true calling. Those who came thoroughly enjoyed the experience, particularly one of the sessions led by Native American educator Paula Underwood, who had first taught me The Rule of Six. Paula and I organized a program on what Native Americans could teach corporate America about leading change. I can still see the group of us in the old barn, sitting in a big circle on hay bales, while Paula sketched The Rule of Six on the newsprint tacked to the grain bin and the children played up in the hay mows.
The possibility of an environmental center linked to the area university didn’t seem to reap any short-term benefits, although it still could result in a partnership.
My animal-loving stepson has since turned one of the barns into a pig rescue center. It began years back when flooding in the mid-west sent pigs onto the levees, where people were shooting them. He rescued a mother pig, who is now, I understand, enormous and is living a luxurious (in pig terms) life with her offspring in western Maryland.
Like the complicated dairy story, most complex organizational challenges can be approached more wisely with the discipline of The Rule of Six. The practice of slowing down and stepping back, allows for visualizing more possibilities. Rather than settling on one of them as the absolute truth, the process of holding and exploring a variety of possibilities helps us see openings and emerging opportunities that otherwise might be invisible or that we would ignore.
The Art and Spirit of Leadership