Red Shirt or Brown Pants Problems

There was a treasure ship on its way back to port.

About halfway there, it was approached by a pirate, skull and crossbones waving in the breeze! “Captain, captain, what do we do?” asked the first mate. “First mate,” said the captain, “go to my cabin, open my sea chest, and bring me my red shirt.” The first mate did so. Wearing his bright red shirt, the captain exhorted his crew to fight. So inspiring was he, in fact, that the pirate ship was repelled without casualties.

A few days later, the ship was again approached, this time by two pirate sloops! “Captain, captain, what should we do?” “First mate, bring me my red shirt!” The crew, emboldened by their fearless captain, fought heroically, and managed to defeat both boarding parties, though they took many casualties. That night, the survivors had a great celebration. The first mate asked the captain the secret of his bright red shirt.

“It’s simple, first mate. If I am wounded, the blood does not show, and the crew continues to fight without fear.”

A week passed, and they were nearing their home port, when suddenly the lookout cried that ten ships of the enemy’s armada were approaching! “Captain, captain, we’re in terrible trouble, what do we do?” The first mate looked expectantly at the miracle worker. Pale with fear, the captain commanded, “First mate…. bring me my brown pants!”

I thought of this joke the other day when thinking about issues that we as leaders face on a daily basis.  It made me think of the principal that I used to work for who wore a white shirt everyday.  EVERY-STINKIN-DAY!  For him, dress down day meant wearing a patterned shirt.  Anyway, that was the everyday business attire for him and I would propose that as the captain, the white shirt was appropriate for most occasions.  For this message then lets categorize everyday problems as “White Shirt” problems.  Those are the things that you are expecting to occur fairly regularly.  You may not wake up in the morning expecting them but when they do, you realize that they are part of your job and you just try to keep your white shirt clean.

Red shirt problems then are the problems where you need to protect someone else.  You need to hide a little bit of the blood, deflect a few bullets, from your tribe.  Figurative blood and bullets of course.  These are the issues that take bravery to overcome.  The “never-let’em-see-you sweat” problems. One of the assistant principal jobs I had required me to be a buffer between the upper administration and the staff on a number of occasions.  I would take the heat and for the most part the staff never knew it or I would be the go between with the staff and the principal.  I’d pull on my red shirt and advocate for them when necessary.   These don’t occur all that often but when they do you assure your people that everything is going to be fine and you labor through it.  You take the shots because that’s what great leaders do.

Brown pant problems, on the other hand, occur very infrequently.  I would categorize these problems as things that you can’t really keep from the tribe.  If you are breaking out the brown pants too often then something is systemically wrong in your organization.  If your company is going bankrupt, if massive layoffs are on the forefront, if a hostile takeover is about to take place; if the building is on fire.  Those are brown pant problems.  The biggies!  I would surmise that even the greatest leaders have a pair of brown pants somewhere.  The best probably never need to use them.

The reason for this post though is not to explain the types of problems but to help put things into perspective.  Don’t bring out the brown pants everyday!  A late employee is not a brown pant problem.  A phone call from your boss to meet him in his office is not a brown pant problem – usually.  Five people calling off for work does not precipitate donning the red shirt nor does a call from the distributor telling you your shipment is late.  Live in the white shirt as much as possible – figuratively of course because I don’t even own a red shirt! Use the skills that you have to solve these kinds of problems as a matter of course.  Don’t make white shirt problems into red shirt problems and save the brown pants to go with the brown jacket.  Of course no one would be caught dead in a brown suit but that’s another post altogether.


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