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The Dragon in the Room

Close to twenty-five years ago, I read some words from Jack Welch that had a real impact on my life. Welch took General Electric, a faltering home appliance company, and transformed it into one of the most successful conglomerates in the world. He retired in 2001, and since then the company has declined dramatically.

Welch became GE’s youngest CEO in 1982. As he sought to transform the company, he embraced a certain guiding principle that drove everything. These words really resonated with me:

“The key trait of a vital, dynamic corporation is looking reality (the truth) straight in the eye, and then acting on it with as much speed as possible.”

Welch says when he became CEO, he inherited a lot of great things, but facing the truth, particularly as it relates to problems, was not one of the company’s strengths. They had too much superficial congeniality and unrealistic optimism. This made candor extremely difficult to come by.

What I learned from Welch is that if you want to be a healthy person or a healthy organization, you have to run towards your problems and not away from them.

You see this same teaching in Jordan Peterson’s The 12 Rules for Life. He says if you want real chaos in your life, don’t deal with your problems. Let them linger, ignore them, pretend like they are not there.

I think we somehow come to believe that maybe if I don’t deal with them, they will eventually go away. However, they never go away. In fact, most problems that are not confronted generally grow worse over time. They are magnified and compound. They get bigger.

Peterson is a brilliant psychologist who teaches at the University of Toronto. To make his point, he uses a simple children’s story to teach this valuable lesson.

It comes from the book, There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, by Jack Kent. It’s a very simple tale, at least on the surface. It’s about a small boy, Billy Bixbee, who spies a dragon sitting on his bed one morning. It’s about the size of a house cat, and friendly. He tells his mother about it, but she tells him there’s no such thing as a dragon. So, it starts to grow. It eats all of Billy’s pancakes. Soon it fills the whole house. Mom tries to vacuum, but she has to go in and out of the house through the windows because of the dragon everywhere. It takes her forever. Then, the dragon runs off with the house. Billy’s dad comes home – and there’s just an empty space, where he used to live. The mailman tells him where the house went. He chases after it, climbs up the dragon’s head and neck (now sprawling out into the street) and rejoins his wife and son. Mom still insists that the dragon does not exist, but Billy, who’s pretty much had it by now, insists, “There is a dragon, Mom.” Instantly, it starts to shrink. Soon, it’s cat-sized again. Everyone agrees that dragons of that size (1) exist and (2) are much preferable to their giant counterparts. Mom, eyes reluctantly opened by this point, asks somewhat plaintively why it had to get so big. Billy quietly suggest: “maybe it wanted to be noticed.”

Peterson says we love to sweep our problems under the rug, however this is where dragons feast on crumbs, and then grows. And then one day, it bursts forth in a way that you can no longer ignore it, and the end result is usually chaos and misery.

This can happen with a company or in your own personal life. Peterson says that it happens most frequently in marriage. When marital conflict and problems arise, so many couples don’t react, don’t attend to it, don’t discuss, don’t work for peace, don’t take responsibility. He says that the possibility of a growing dragon lurks beneath every marriage.

Therefore, if you want to be a healthy person, to have a healthy marriage, a healthy company, you must run straight at your problems and not away from them. The alternative is a chaotic life, full of misery.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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