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Success is Not a Straight Line

Top 10 leadership insights from watching a Roomba® vacuum.

It’s always fun to read a book that makes me see the world differently. When I met Stephanie Olexa at her Pennsylvania leadership retreat center, she told me about a book she’d written. It grabbed my interest at once, and it was delightful. Leadership Lessons from a Vacuum Cleaner is an accessible, insightful reflection on a Roomba®.

In case you don’t know what a Roomba® is, let me explain. It’s a thick round vacuuming disc (pictured here) that sits on a charging station until you set it out to clean your floor. It moves along, bumping into walls, changing direction, and running over bare floors and rugs to suck up day-to-day debris.

I’ve been skeptical about how effective they are, but Olexa assured me they work.

She has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, along with an MBA. She started and ran her own business, turning it into a nationwide organization, and now she’s a certified leadership coach. She’s held senior positions in Fortune 500 companies and she now uses her knowledge and experience to train others. If a woman with these credentials says the Roomba® works, I believe her. If she adds that it offers valuable teaching lessons, I’m listening.

For example, she noticed that when her Roomba® hit a wall, it didn’t just sit there and pout. It changed course and went off into a new direction. So, this became a chapter on the necessity of persistence, optimism, and resilience. Of course, the chapter is not all about what the vacuum cleaner does. Its behavior merely provides the metaphorical frame. From there, Olexa moves into examples from the business world to demonstrate a basic lesson in leadership, and shows how it has worked well for others. She also provides exercises for developing these skills.

In “Start from Where You Are,” Olexa describes the importance of balancing an honest self-assessment with a realistic sense of self-esteem. Then she includes her own leadership training on this point, adding charts and important statistics from recent studies in the business field. Leadership failure appears to be related to an inability to balance these two items.

Each chapter follows this design, and they all include simple visuals, such as a personal success wheel. You learn the value, for example, of commitment and deliberate practice, and you get to practice mindfulness. Some of the metaphors are obvious (but still valuable), while others make you think a little more.

How, for example, does a Roomba® ask for help? Olexa describes what this means, provides an assortment of reasons for why many of us resist asking, and illustrates how this shortcoming can undermine us in the business world. She focuses this chapter on what to do when you think you have an insurmountable hurdle. Asking for help from the right people can be critical for accomplishing some goals.

My favorite insight is about how the Roomba® senses when it needs to return to the docking station before its battery runs out. “Roomba® manages its energy,” Olexa writes, “not its time.” Apparently, it’s smarter than those of us who let ourselves get so run down we can hardly function.

When Olexa wrote this book, she found that it provided a “simple way of tying together and communicating some of the most important life and leadership lessons that I have learned.” She now encourages her clients to “Roomba®,” which helps to launch them with a smile. “Heck, if a vacuum cleaner can be a leader,” she concludes, “so can you!”

The Roomba® taught her to open her mind to unique sources for ideas, and she now uses this experience to encourage such mental flexibility in others. As a simple, brief guide for success in business (or in life), this book packs a lot of wisdom.

More from Katherine Ramsland Ph.D.
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