The Ladder Story – How to Best Motivate a Team

The Ladder Story

This is a story about a kid who was afraid of heights.   Somehow, he found himself in a job that required him to paint rooftops, go figure.   The first couple rooftops were fairly low to the ground, and were not a big issue.  But then there was one that was about 25 feet high.  He needed to first climb onto a smaller roof, and then up a shaky aluminum ladder to get to the top roof.

The first one was easy, he had climbed that high many times before and knew he could do it.   But the 2nd one proved to be much more difficult for him.   He started to climb the ladder and got about half way up and looked down.  He could see the small cars below, could feel the nimble ladder beneath him, and could see the tiny movements that the ladder took with each step.  It was enough to send him back down the ladder.

Everyone else that he was working with had already made it to the top of the ladder and were on the top of the roof.  All of them were now looking down at this kid.  Some were taunting him.  Some were encouraging him.  But all of them were staring at him.   He started up the ladder again and like the first time, got a few steps up and turned back.   He was convinced at this point that he was not going to work on the roof that day.  Everyone else was too.  They turned their attention to the roof itself and they started working.

Something crazy happened at this point.  The kid suddenly realized that it was acceptable to fail.  All of the expectations that the others had of him had vanished.  Without them, a weight was lifted from his shoulders.  He thought to himself, “I am going to do this”, and he started to climb the ladder again.  This time, he kept climbing as nobody watched.  Before he knew it, he was at the top.  As he stepped onto the roof, everyone turned with a surprised look on their faces that he was there.

This “kid” was me.  And I did what I thought was impossible that day.  I learned a very valuable lesson, too.  Overcoming personal challenges in the face of external criticism and/or expectations is extremely difficult.   I was a better worker when all expectations of me were removed.  As a manger, I am cognizant of this experience while planning tasks.  At the highest level, I do hold expectations for my team.  However, at the lowest level, the individual team members are entrusted with assuring the success of their own contributions.


When managers micromanage, they take the ownership of smaller decisions away from the people who are implementing them.  The manager then becomes the guy at the top of the ladder taunting the workers below as they climb it.  It creates an atmosphere that is ripe for failure.

All too often, a manager is so concerned with his/her own success, that in order to assure their own success they believe that they need to control every detail of what their team works on.  What they often fail to recognize is that in doing so, they not only hurt the productive capacity of their team (because they become a bottleneck for decisions), but the manager also ensures a high stress environment that is prone to failure.

Lessons Learned

An employee who is able to make their own choices will have a higher commitment to his/her own success.   Failure follows stress.  Stress follows a lack of empowerment.  A lack of empowerment follows a controlling boss.  A controlling boss follows an insecure boss, afraid of his own failure.

Conclusion:  An insecure boss is a bad boss.