The Migraine Metaphor

There’s very smart and demanding mogul I know whose staff have coined nickname for him: Mr Migraine. The first time I heard it I debated telling him. I abhor disloyalty. There were, however, other more pressing matters at hand and I held my tongue.
Imagine my surprise when at subsequent luncheon “Mr Migraine” glanced at newspaper headline about some latest business upheaval and chuckled; “Oh, boy, they’re going to blame Mr Migraine for this one back at the office.”
Yes, he knew all about his nickname. He was even proud of it – and so were his executives and employees. But it wasn’t always that way.
Like me, he had first overhead the nickname by accident. The explanation for it, provided by an executive caught discussing it in the office went something like this:
“We started out complaining about how many headaches you give us. But then someone said it was funny how whenever you gave us headache over something we ended up doing our best work.”
“And so now you want me to give you headache all the time?” he joked. They hesitated, of course. “How about when it’s called for?” he added. From then on the appearance of some new crisis or rush job was greeted with calls for Mr Migraine.
Thus potential source of resentment became part of the company culture. The nickname became call to arms, productivity tool, and morale booster – established without writing cheque to consultant.
We should all pause to give silent thanks for the headaches we are about to receive. What is headache, after all, but warning? It’s the bottom line speaking out and saying: “Be careful.”

Problem relief
Here’s how it has worked for me. I have, on many occasions, encountered roadblock in some negotiation or other. My initial irritation at the delay invariably ebbs as the complexity or unexamined consequences of the issues are revealed. Occasionally I find myself heaving sigh of relief that the “obstacle” surfaced when it did because, if we had gone to contract without settling the issue, the consequences might ultimately have been nettlesome or costly.
The Migraine Theory almost re-states German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous dictum: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
But that would be missing an important difference. headache doesn’t kill; it discourages and dulls. And that’s more accurate description of what leaders confront.
Company leadership can’t be compared with the invasion of Normandy. But you do face relentless adversary in deadening, risk-averse behaviour that continually threatens to turn an enterprise into hollow shell.
Seek comfort and routine, and employees will inevitably begin avoiding headaches without being conscious that they are doing so.
That’s why the word “headache” suits me as management metaphor. It symbolises the nagging and unpleasant but really rather undramatic aspects to many of today’s business problems.
The problems that nobody wants to tangle with are precisely those which slow an organisation’s reflexes and strangle its spirit.

Manager’s litmus test
But there’s more to it than simple metaphor. Migraine theory also provides handy indicator of who the leaders are.
Headaches are manager’s litmus test. To know who the leaders are just look for the people who are dealing with migraines all the time.
Managers who cure migraines, who voluntarily take on your migraines, who bring you fresh migraines – these are your leaders. They’re not taking the pain-free way out. There may be times when you groan to yourself as you see them standing at your door, waiting to be asked in. But believe me, you want them to feel free to come by. You need to identify and reward them. Because, when the going gets tough, they won’t be paralysed, afraid or put off.
Here are three tenets of Migraine Theory:
* If it doesn’t give you migraine, maybe you aren’t thinking hard enough.
* The migraines in business make you excel, make you better, make you improve.
• Migraines make you concentrate, reach deep within yourself, and come up with tougher and/or more creative solutions.
That which doesn’t give you migraine, makes you weaker.

Mark McCormack is the founder of International Management

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