The Tale Of The Red Herring

Jim Blasingame I don't know if they still do it, but for hundreds of years, fox hunters riding to the hounds would drag a smoked herring across the trail in front of the hounds to distract them away from the scent of the little furry guy. Over the years, this practice has produced the metaphorical term "red herring", which is used to identify an attempt by someone to win an argument or negotiation by trying to divert attention away from the real issue.

Introducing a red herring in a discussion is a defensive tactic used to protect a weak, inferior, invalid, or indefensible position. Being able to point out when someone is using a red herring can be very handy because just by telling the other party you recognize their tactic can help you get the discussion back on point.

You may have known all of this. But what you may not have thought about is that sometimes we have "personal red herrings." Personal red herrings manifest in two ways: To others, and to ourselves.

It's one thing to use personal red herrings on others: as a communications tactic; masking the scent of fear with bravado; trying to cover up evidence of insecurities with aggression; and dragging an excuse across the trail of poor performance. But when we use red herrings on ourselves it's not defensive, it's a lie that is unproductive at best, and destructive at worst.

The Bard and The Red Herring
You won't be surprised to know that I am not the first to think about the personal red herring. About the time Queen Elizabeth I and her court were no doubt creating the sporting use of the red herring, William Shakespeare was projecting the personal application on one of his characters in perhaps his most famous tragedy, Hamlet. In Act I, Scene III, Polonius includes this well-known passage at the end of a litany of wise sayings:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.

Regardless of the relationship, competition and inter-personal politics cause us all to play games with each other from time to time. No one really knows what's in the mind of another. But we are not in competition with ourselves. If we can't be true to ourselves, we can't be true to our dream. And a false dream is an atomic entrepreneurial meltdown waiting to happen.

A Fighting Chance
Perhaps the most difficult dilemma any entrepreneur has to face is knowing when to keep believing and keep working, and when it's time to quit. The issues on these horns could range from something as inconsequential as a small piece of your plan, to the ultimate, the validity of your vision and the viability of your dream.

One of my mentors taught me something that has often helped me. When faced with a "go - no go" decision, he would ask me this question: "Do we have a fighting chance, or do we just have a chance to fight?" The key to success in business, and indeed in life, may be as simple as knowing the answer to that question.

Check Your Position
You will not turn your vision into reality if you lie to yourself. One way to know if you are dragging a red herring across the trail of your own dream is by checking your position. Here are three examples:

1. Have you conducted enough due diligence to know that your plan is reasonable? If not, when faced with a "go - no go" decision, just telling yourself things will work out is a red herring. A diversion. A lie.

But even though you are meeting with resistance, if you can see that the knowledge and information you have acquired is validating your vision, even little examples, then that scenario may be worth fighting for.

2. Is your activity resulting in any success? If nothing is working, convincing yourself that you just need to work harder is diverting you from the reality that you may not be headed in the right direction.

But if, in the middle of the defeats, you find key successes, even small ones, you may have a vision merely in need of adjustments, and worthy of extra effort.

I think it was Mark Twain who said "Failure is a gift." A gift unused is a gift wasted. You shouldn't manufacture red herring successes, but even more importantly, don't waste failures.

3. Are your assumptions performing? The very nature of vision is imagining what might be. As you deploy your vision in the marketplace, if you are only consuming resources and not creating opportunity, you must tell yourself the truth: You are not on the right trail. In order to be successful, "what might be" must ultimately become something.

But even if only some components of your vision are becoming something, that is legitimate information that can help you decide if you should hunt for your dream another day.

Handling Hard Times
In Moses: CEO, my friend and Brain Trust member, Robert Dilenschneider wrote "Much of our learning and growth...has come when we have faced difficulties and navigated our way through them. By embracing hard times, we embrace wisdom, courage, and power."

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but as long as you are a small business owner, you will "face difficulty", if not periodic hard times. Facing difficulty successfully requires being true "to thine own self." When you are under pressure from forces in the marketplace, you must have the truth. And if you can't count on the truth from yourself, you are finished.

If you want to use a "red herring" in a negotiation, go for it. If you want to take me down the wrong trail in a conversation by introducing a diversionary issue, I may even admire you for using aggressive communication tactics. But a "personal red herring" is a lie to yourself.

A personal red herring is more than unproductive, it's destructive. The world and the marketplace are formidable enough forces to reckon with. You are not in competition with yourself. Don't make things harder than they have to be.

Write this on a rock... This above all: To thine own self be true.

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