“Whose Back is the Monkey On?”: The MOST Valuable Management Principle I’ve Ever Learned!

Bob Keller and I holding the “life changing” Document he gave me 20 years ago!

“Call (text, email, message) me this week and…” We respond, “Yeah, sure, I’ll give you a call.” This is a regular conversation for all leaders and managers. For some, it happens scores of times in a day. We have good intentions, but we often forget and never deliver the call we committed to. At that moment we loose credibility and are surprised to discover that our reputation is less than stellar!

I remember it clearly. I was in my 20’s and found myself trying to manage the different compartments of a complex life in a struggling multi-dimensional organization. I played numerous roles and wore many hats! (Pastor, President, Change Strategist, Counselor, Consultant, Teacher, Theologian, Student, Leader, Manager, Husband, Father, Mentor, Mentee, Friend, Etc.) There was a thin line between me being a hero or a villain.

Every Sunday Morning I spoke two sermons in the morning, another Sunday evening, and another Wednesday evening. One Sunday in between the two morning sessions, a kind elderly man asked me if I would visit his ailing wife in a Senior Adult Care Center. I told him I’d be glad to. However, I didn’t write it down. After a busy day, I forgot his request and never visited his wife. Two weeks later she died. He now saw me as a “liar”, and a self-serving, aloof pastor who lacked integrity; and he said so!

As soon as I heard about his wife’s death and his opinion of me I went to his home, took full responsibility for my failure, and asked his forgiveness. We wept together and embraced as he granted forgiveness to me. He then asked me to speak at his wife’s funeral.

I talked to my friend and mentor, Bob Keller, about the experience. Soon he took me to lunch and presented me with an article on: Who’s Got the Monkey? It was from a 1974 edition of Harvard Business Review. The article can be found here. The principle I learned has changed my life and even protected my integrity on many occasions.

We add heavy “monkeys” to our back anytime we use such phrases as: “I’ll get back to you.” “I’ll set that up.” “Let me call you back.” Sure, I’d be glad to.” It’s important to have a system to handle such things. If not, those monkeys will take you down and destroy you as a leader.

Bob explained to me a good solution. He said, “If someone approaches you with an issue, idea, or task, and they want you to respond back to them on it, simply reverse the response.” For example, if they say, “Would you call me this week and let’s…?” They just put a monkey on your back! Your response should be, “I’d be glad to talk, but you call me.” Your response returned the monkey to their back!

My case with the elderly man and ailing wife could have been avoided if I had responded, “I’d be glad to visit your wife, but would please call my office tomorrow morning so my assistant, who coordinates my life, can put it on my calendar? Will you do that for me?” Now, the monkey is on his back. If he forgets to call, at least MY integrity is not in question!

There are MANY scenarios where this principle will add great value, so learn it well and give it a try today. I use it every day! It feels really good to throw monkeys!!!

Thank you, Bob Keller, for being a trusted friend and mentor, and adding great value to my journey since December 1986!

How many unnecessary monkeys are you carrying around on YOUR back?
How do you deal with the challenge of constant demands? What tools help you?

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