July 17, 2014
By Douglas Gehrman
I have always loved options, i.e., a wide selection of possibilities for my life, almost to a fault. With options. I feel in charge of my destiny. With options, I feel free. With options, commitment seems temporary or non-existent. If I don’t like my boss, it doesn’t matter because I have others waiting to hire me. If I don’t like the service at a local store, it’s no problem because I can take my business elsewhere.
Options are power. Options are control.
One of the world’s favorite kind of option is stock. Although thrown in a different category than most of life’s options, stock options generally follow the same model. The recipient has the right to buy a firm’s common stock at a fixed price and is under no obligation or commitment to buy the stock. No risk is assumed by virtue of having the option. Usually the recipient has ten years to make a decision and will only opt to exercise the option if a profit is involved.
Stock is one of life’s most perfect options. Great flexibility, no commitment, and no downside risk. Don’t we wish all of life’s options offered such flexibility? As we all know, they don’t. Pursuing life’s options involve risks, uncertainty, and sometimes failure and disappointment.
For people addicted to “keeping their options open,” they rarely exercise total commitment to a single option. Commitment is frightening. What if I’m wrong? What if a better alternative lies just around the corner? The pursuit of the perfect option sometimes makes my life less functional rather than more functional. Maybe I’m an addict.
A simplistic example: My wife and I are discussing several possible restaurants where we could dine that evening. We settle on one, but I’m not convinced it’s the best choice. As we walk out the door, I throw out, “Maybe we should go to Saltgrass instead?” Chris sighs as we get in the car, knowing that I might change my mind again before we make the twenty-minute drive to Cleburne’s Cafeteria.
But now we’re on our way to the cafeteria on Bissonnet, a popular spot for the older set. I have already mapped out an exit plan if the restaurant is too crowded or the day’s menu doesn’t interest me. Just in case, I have two alternative dining spots in mind.
Once we get there, I begin looking for a parking space. I see one almost immediately, but decide to pass it up thinking there must be a better option closer to the door. Then I pass a second open spot based on the same logic, and end up circling around until I am back at the first parking spot, which I reluctantly take. It’s now the only one left.
When we enter the cafeteria, I find a relatively short line and the food looks good enough that we decide to stay. I grab a tray and start down the line. Cafeterias are an option lover’s paradise. I slowly move down the line examining all the selections, tempted by some but thinking other better choices might be further down the line. I’m so plagued by this that I reach the end of the line with an empty tray. Making a choice and foregoing other possibilities was just too difficult. Just like parking, I have to circle around and start over.
Obviously, there are various levels of addiction and option seeking is no different. I have sometimes avoided total commitment to a single course of action because of the fear of making the wrong choice. If an organization’s culture severely penalizes people who make mistakes, why take too many chances? I tend to pursue multiple strategies as a rule. If one fails, another may prove successful. In business we call it contingency planning.
Enron appeared to be an organization that thrived on pursuing new options, what felt like progress that eventually proved disastrous. The company lived in the chaos of change. To justify the pursuit of interesting business ideas, accounting “options” were put into place to conceal the failures. Sometimes life turns out that way for an option’s addict. They end up with just an empty tray.
In business, I was much less driven by the need to have options. You can’t deliberate too long. I had to make decisions because I was expected to achieve results. My primary commitment was to the field of human resources and I was driven by a focused strategy for the long-term, a set of ethical values that didn’t change to meet the expediency often encouraged by the marketplace, as well as commitment to a team of people to execute the business plan and meet the customer’s best interest.
If I had operated as an options addict at work, I may have avoided these commitments and hoped that the flexibility of keeping my options open would protect me from failure, or at least provide the opportunity to blame failures on those people resisting change.
Commitment may not always be perceived as glamorous, but it can produce exceptional results. The third grade teacher who taught for 35 years and influenced hundreds of lives; the researcher who devoted a lifetime to cancer treatment, the political leaders, volunteers, religious leaders, and public servants who devoted themselves to improving the lives of others and giving a measure of respect and dignity to those they touched. Commitment is a powerful force.
However, all strengths in excess become weaknesses. Being inflexible and having a closed mind to options can be a serious flaw. In contrast, always looking for the greener grass on the other side of the fence, chasing the business fad of the year, or never fully committing to a course of action is also a serious problem. Finding the balance is critical, which is what I tried to do.
I picked a career option—human resources—and never wavered. I decided to commit my life to it, and poured my heart and soul into that promise. All human endeavors, based on integrity and love, have intrinsic value. Sure, there were disappointments. Sure, I was sometimes tempted by other options. However, at the end of the line, my reward was a tray full of meaningful contributions.
Doug Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Baptist University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at email@example.com.