I discovered something interesting recently: how I use drain cleaner is a metaphor for my leadership…and life.

Sink Drain

My sink was clogged last year, so I used some drain cleaner to clear it up. While reading the instructions, I noticed that it recommended using it periodically to address “small clogs and buildup.” That seemed reasonable and I did do just that for a few months.

For four months, I had perfectly flowing water…until I forgot about the periodic checkups. Two months went by, then three, and before long, I was back in crisis mode. The drain backed up again. D’oh!

What’s interesting to me now is that I never allowed the progression of buildup to bother me. I never reacted when it first started to build up just a little.

When I was regularly addressing the small clogs and buildups, I was always amazed at how freely the water flowed afterwards. Even one month of buildup, when removed, was noticeable, even if it wasn’t yet an inconvenience or a major problem.

The same goes for leadership. Leaders must always address problems before they become crises.

What small problems look like

Perhaps you have a salesperson who regularly used to make 15-20 sales each week, when his quota is only 10. But for the past two weeks he only made 12. He is still hitting his quota, so what’s the big deal, right?

What’s the big deal? That something is wrong! And it’s your job to find out.

Or perhaps your assistant used to always be at the office 30 minutes early and have everything ready. Now he arrives barely on time and is rushed. He’s not late, but a small clog is developing that could become a crisis if not addressed.

4 reasons we don’t address small problems

  1. Fear of confrontation. 
  2. Fear of overreacting.
  3. Fear of micromanaging.
  4. Fear of being wrong.
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We avoid doing the right thing out of fear. We allow small problems to escalate into crises because of fear. We allow other people to suffer in silence because of fear.

And this kind of fear comes from only one place…


But not you. You will address the small problems head on. You will not let fear control you or ignore the obvious.

Like the drain cleaner when used regularly, you will remove small obstacles with ease. Here’s how:

6 ways to approach small problems

  1. Treat them seriously.
  2. Seek to understand. Ask what is going on and genuinely listen to the answer. Try to relate.
  3. Prepare for a rock-your-world answer. There might be something serious going on (death in the family, divorce, etc.). Be prepared mentally.
  4. Focus on problem-solving. Get the person help if needed. Focus on helping the person first, and work second.
  5. Focus on the future, not the past. There is no need to beat someone up over a mistake. Keep your focus on getting him or her on track, not on reliving what went wrong.
  6. ___________________. What would you add to this list?

Have you ever allowed a small problem to become a crisis? What was the result?

14 thoughts on “How Leaders can Avoid a Crisis: The Drain Cleaner Technique

  1. Let's Grow Leaders says:

    And stay calm…

  2. Ali Anani says:

    Matt- great metaphor. I really like it. Yes, problems tend to grow and are not confined by space. I wonder if you would consider procrastination as a contributor to allowing small problems grow big.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Yes. That was my mistake. The small problem was never urgent or worth as much RIGHT THEN as my other tasks or projects. That meant we never addressed it until it was a $1000 problem, at which point it was often too late.

    2. Ali Anani says:

      Matt- I want to record my acknowledgement for the inspiration this post provided me with. I have been thinking for a while about correlating the flow of blood with the flow of information. I wanted to describe the “information clot” that acts as… Now, I may complete this as acts as an information plug. I am preparing a slideshare presentation. Matt, you are an inspirer.

      1. Matt McWilliams says:

        Thank you Ali. That means a lot.

  3. Bob Winchester says:

    Great post Matt! Not sure why your drain is getting clogged so often though? You may want to reconsider what you are pouring down there? 😉

    I would also add that you should not get defensive if the answer the person gives, points toward you. It’s easy to think the blame lies elsewhere, but obviously leadership has a strong influence on engagement or lack there of. Which can lead to the “clogs” you are talking about.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Haha I have no clue Bob.

      You are so right. It’s easy to defend yourself against criticism. A great leader digests it and, if needed, makes the appropriate changes.

  4. Mark Sieverkropp says:

    Great post brother. I would add laziness to the list of why we don’t address small issues. I’m great at that. “eh, it’ll blow over. It’s not THAT big of a deal”.
    I’m great at letting small things grow into major issues. I’m working at getting better at that. For me, it really is just laziness. I don’t want to exert the effort to deal with the small issue, which is hilarious, because then you deal with a crisis and it takes MORE energy.
    Thanks for sharing. It’s a great reminder!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Soooo true Mark. It’s similar to cleaning I’ve found. 5 minutes a day usually does the trick in my office. Or an hour every 2 weeks. The former is much easier.

  5. Katherine Leicester says:

    When smiles and happy-clappy are the only gauges of success, everything else is a dangerous distraction.

  6. Ali Moselle says:

    How timely is this post? We had three co-workers resign from our 10-person unit this week. Now management is scrambling to find out what happened.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Wow. The key is not only to figure out why they left but what was going on all that time…then use that to prevent similar things in the future. There were signs all along…I hope they figure it out!

  7. Tom Dixon says:

    You are right, you really have to LISTEN to the answer. There could be something going on at home or health wise that you can’t see.

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