Anyone who’s been in a leadership role for any length of time has experienced a situation where we have reviewed a set of circumstances and put together a plan of attack that’s designed to improve the situation and guide the potential outcomes to the benefit of the organization. Most of us, know going in, that it is possible that these interventions don’t produce exactly the desired results and we also know if we fall short, we can adjust along the way.
But sometimes, even our most well-intentioned plans and interventions don’t produce results that make the situation even slightly better. Sometimes a little revision can put things back on track, but other times, our best and most well-intentioned plans, produce results that make the situation far worse.
The consequences of aggressively pursuing a bad strategy from a leadership standpoint can be catastrophic. As in many things, history has important lessons to teach us here. One of our primary goals should be to avoid something known as “The Cobra Effect.”
The term cobra effect comes from an unfortunate leadership decision during the time of British rule of colonial India. The British Government was appalled by the number of venomous cobra snakes in and around Delhi. Some enterprising young military leader took note of the benefit of the large Indian population and decided a good leadership solution would be to pay a bounty to the people of India to catch all of the cobras for income. Initially, this was a very successful strategy; thousands of snakes were killed for the reward. But as it became harder to find the snakes and get the bounty, some enterprising Indians started breeding hundreds of the snakes and turning those in for the reward. When the British government found out about this, they immediately discontinued the bounty paid for the cobras and thus made all of the snakes raised in captivity worthless. So the Indians released all of the now-worthless cobras, and the population of cobras around Delhi was soon greater than before the program was instituted. It’s a classic example of a well-intentioned leadership intervention that produced exactly the opposite result from what was expected.
As leaders, we are generally keenly aware of the important role that ethics and good intentions play in the quest to lead effectively. Even so, we would do well to take a lesson from the medical community when we’re thinking about possible paths forward and interventions from a leadership perspective. One of the primary tenets of the medical community’s Hippocratic oath is “First Do No Harm.” This simple concept can save many of us a lot of grief, embarrassment and extra work over the long run. Take a minute, think before you choose your course of action, and don’t let the cobra effect bite you in the…. Well, you know what.