Jack H. (Nick) McCall*
Tennessee Valley Authority
As part of corporate culture, shared values and team-building program required of all new employees, a large enterprise once gave the term “gravity issue” an important role in its shared corporate language. The meaning of this phrase is not exactly the same as that known to Sir Isaac Newton.
When I mentioned the concept of the gravity issue to our Institute for Professional Leadership Director, Doug Blaze, he thought for a moment and said: “It’s kind of like the Serenity Prayer, in a way.” (“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”) That is a very apt way to look at this idea.
What exactly is a “gravity issue”? In essence, it is the kind of issue or situation that causes a person to say: “That’s enough!” Specifically, a gravity issue is anything that a person or entity cannot change. (Humans cannot change the laws of gravity—hence, the terminology.) Rather than have persons or employees waste time worrying about things that they just cannot change, the corporate-culture seminar taught that leaders and managers need to be able to identify gravity issues concretely and accurately, and then tell their subordinates (or peers and bosses) not to worry about them or waste time dealing with matters outside their control. The weather, the economy, upper management’s outlooks, the political environment, and downsizing/right-sizing, for most managers and their subordinates, are all squarely issues of “gravity.”
An example from television may give a poignant example of how heavy gravity issues can be.
Most of us might not think of the beloved TV show “M*A*S*H” as being anything like a primer for applied leadership, given the foibles and vices of some of its chief protagonists. Yet, even the leader of the 4077 M.A.S.H., the flawed but lovable Colonel Henry Blake, had at least one outstanding moment of practical and compassionate leadership that was about as deep and immutable a gravity issue as one could experience. In the episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” a good friend of chief surgeon Captain Hawkeye Pierce’s dies. “Meatball surgeon” in a combat zone though he is, Hawkeye is distraught by this particular death. Henry counsels and, in a sense, consoles, Hawkeye by saying: “Look, all I know is what they taught me at Command School. There are certain rules about a war. Rule Number One is: Young men die. And Rule Number Two is: Doctors can’t change Rule Number One.”
Gravity issue, indeed.
While most of us do not have to concern ourselves with life and death in so direct a form at least in our practices and offices, we still deal with serious issues: client needs and disappointments, and lawyer needs and disappointments; collections and paying bills, hiring and firing staff, etc. Not just staff, associates and junior lawyers, but partners and senior attorneys, also sometimes need to be reminded, ever so gently, that some of their worries are in fact about gravity issues, and all the worrying in the world will not change them. “Grant me the serenity….”
Coupled with this comes the need for lawyer-leaders to be able to identify, discern and discuss real “gravity issues”—to assist productivity and soothe those fevered minds—but, at the same time, not use a purported “gravity issue” as a way of squelching other, competing ideas or of cutting off full and frank discussions. This can sometimes be the case, and issues that are, in fact, not really gravity issues can be labeled as such, with the practical effect of shutting down discussion. The tendency to label certain significant and difficult-to-resolve matters and concerns as “gravity issues” can, therefore, be a two-ended sword of sorts, to be paid attention to and avoided.
After all: sometimes, gravity is not actually as heavy as it seems.
*The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the U.S. government.