Have You Heard the One About the Turtle on the Fence Post....?

I was on the phone the other day with an old friend who is retiring from his job of 30 years, but who is too young to just fish and play golf. We were talking about what it is like to be in business for yourself. As the conversation went along, he said to me “Do you know the story of the turtle on the fence post?"

So, this story has been around for a long time, and yet, as I was thinking about the relationship to coaching and leadership it really struck me as impactful. As both coaches and leaders, we get mental pictures of how we are seeing the world. One very important task we all have is to be able to ask the right questions in order to get our clients and teams to broaden their perspectives when obstacles arise. Being open to perspective is the key to understanding and a sure sign you are at a minimum being empathic.

The story goes that a father and his daughter were driving along the road in West Texas. The road was long and straight and there was nothing but concrete, blue sky, and fence posts to look at. It seems like they had driven for hours to the point where all they saw was fence post….fence post…..fence post. If you have driven in West Texas you know what this can be like.  



Fencepost…fencepost…fencepost with a turtle on it….fencepost…

Then the young girl turned to her dad and said, “Did you see that turtle on the fencepost? I wonder how it got there!”

The father, seeing the teachable moment, pulls the truck off the side of the road, turns to his daughter and says, “The question isn’t how the turtle got there. The question really is WHO put the turtle there.”

Leadership Application

As leaders, so many times we see it as our job to have all the answers. We can have this insatiable desire for information or for knowledge. We fall into the trap of thinking that the person with the information is the one who has the power in a relationship.  

While it is foolish to discount the importance of having information, I have come to believe that it is the person who has the right question that really sets the tone and the agenda in the organization.

In the little story about the turtle on the fence post, the daughter had the information. She was able to observe what was going on in her world. She even asked a question which is really cool. She did not assume she could explain the quite unnatural phenomena.

In front of her was a turtle on a fence post...

  • unnatural
  • interesting
  • alluring
  • intriguing

All of these natural responses to seeing a turtle on a fence post.  

The little girl should even get credit for doing more than just saying, “Look there is a turtle on a fence post,” and then turning back to her phone to continue to mindlessly scroll through her Facebook page.

She asks a question of her dad, in fact, a good question, a reasonable question.  “How did the turtle get there?”

But the father knew that in this case, the answer to the question lay deeper in “who put the turtle on the fence post.”

4 Strategies for Leaders to think more critically

As I was thinking about the story of the turtle on the fence post and how it might apply to leadership, four main things came to mind.

  1. Be careful not to rush to judgement

This is a real trap for the experienced leader. A young person brings a problem into the office and rather than ask for understanding or context the wise sage says, "I have seen this 100 times in all my years…."

While having experience is important, as leaders we must be cautious in playing the experience card. Experience can give the impression of certainty. Certainty brings with it an idea of mitigation of risk. "I have seen this before and this is what will work."

The problem with certainty is that there is no room for creativity or curiosity. There is no room for learning for that young leader. There is no place for them to develop their own set of experiences so they have things to judge against in the future.

  1. Be open and curious in your questioning.

The main point here is for the leader to work hard to be unbiased and to be really genuine. We have to have our curiosity meter set on maximum as well as our genuine interest be on helping the other person.  

  1. Co-create Reality

Leaders who are skilled at critical thinking have an ability to co-create reality with those they are working with. Develop the ability to come up with questions for which you have no answer.  These types of questions will help to create the reality that you and your followers are experiencing.

As you think about the turtle on the fence post, remember that the father knew that there is no way the turtle could get there on its own. There was some assistance that was needed.  “How” the turtle got there was not going to get the conversation much further.  “I don’t know” is about the only answer you could expect to get. In this case, the person who might come into your office might be left with well, let me see if I can go find some reasons for turtles to be on a fence post and I will get back to you.

But the father circumvented this by changing the question.  By changing the question, the little girl now can co-create the reality with her father and a teachable moment comes about.  As the question changes from “how” to “who," the leader is able to set the agenda and the follower is able to enter into this reality as a co-creator of what can be versus just describing what is.

  1. think WHO as much as you think HOW

Almost once a week I find myself in a conversation with someone looking for a new job.  

Their questions often go something like:

“I am thinking about looking for this new job and was wondering if you could take a look at my resume.”

My standard reply has become, “Who do you know there? Who do you know in the industry?” 

Call me old school, but it is the person hiring who gets me the job, not my resume. How you got to the interview and all of your great experience IS NOT getting you the job that you desire. I guarantee it is the hiring manager who is going to bring you on the team.

What about you guys? Any tips you might have that improves your critical thinking?