What Clams Taught Me About Leadership Jeffrey S. Deckman, Founder, Capability Accelerators 08.15.11

I owned a telecommunications integration firm from 1987 until 2008. And while the company was located in Rhode Island, I spent almost two years working exclusively in Manhattan from 1999 to 2000.

I was there as part of a team attempting to secure $25 to $50 million to fund a Smart Building strategy we were hoping to eventually take public.

This was at the height of the technology boom, and being in Manhattan meant that I was in its financial and innovation epicenter. This was in a place and at a time when Hi-Tech was attracting some of the most talented, creative and innovative people ever to convene around the industry, including the cast of characters with whom I was partnered. They were as diverse as they were brilliant. A few of them were also quite eccentric.

For example, our finance guy was a business manager for several well known music groups of the 90’s; the CEO was a brilliant, but very strange, innovator who started one of the first non-AT&T long distance companies and also painted his toenails red and green during Christmas – even though he was Jewish. One of our fundraisers was an ex-Division 1 college linebacker who could sell water to a drowning man, but would buzz cut his hair and dye it bright yellow…not blonde….before a big meeting because someone bet him he wouldn’t. And our marketing guy was a 70-year-old corporate marketing guru who built the Nestle brand.

Then there was Jason. Jason was a 27-year-old, certifiable genius who could get up to speed on almost any concept in record time. This guy seemed completely normal on the outside, and was one of the funniest people I ever met.

My job in all of this was twofold: I was responsible for insuring our technical solution would work and that this group of people could and would actually function as a team.

Some days, this was like herding cats on LSD into a bag of catnip. Not an easy task.

But learning to work with this menagerie at such a high stakes game taught me a lot about leadership and how to align very talented people with complex personalities and large egos to achieve a common objective.

In the end, while we came close on several occasions to getting funded, we couldn’t pull it off before the bubble burst.

The point of that story is to tell you the next story about Jason, his clams and what they taught me about leadership. Lessons that I still use every single day in my practice.

What do Clams and Humans Have in Common? Both “Clam Up” Under Stress.

When I first met Jason, he had just developed a “portable and highly durable water monitoring system using bivalve mollusks.” In other words, he had figured out how to use clams and mussels to determine if toxins were in a water supply. The military applications alone for such a device were huge! Who knew??

The purpose of his invention, in laymen’s terms, is that the military is highly mobile. As such, it has a great need to determine if water supplies they come in contact with are either drinkable or toxic; hence the need for a mobile, durable and highly accurate water monitoring system.

Jason’s “clam solution” worked this way. Clams are uniquely challenged in that they are pretty much stationary and feed by filtering water through their mouths. They are also highly sensitive to toxins. So, if toxins get in the water, they need a way to protect themselves without possessing the ability to swim away. So, their only defense is to “clam up” to avoid the toxins.

Once they sense the water is clean again, they re-open their shells, albeit slowly.

So, when their environment is healthy, the clams are open, and when their environment is toxic, they clam up.

Jason’s used his genius to figure out how to equate various shell positions of the clams to the level of toxicity in any given water supply. To do this, he put the clams in a special container, attached sensors to their shells, immersed them in the water samples and monitored their shell positions using specially designed algorithms and a laptop. Open shells indicated healthy environments. Closed shells indicated toxic environments.

The Leadership Lesson

As I began thinking more deeply about Jason’s work and the clam’s natural reaction to toxins in their environments, I began to see a very clear correlation with people’s natural reaction to toxins: we both clam up under stress.

When we encounter toxins in our environment, we tend to clam up and go into a shell to protect ourselves from the toxins we are being exposed to, as well as from the person creating them.

If the toxic environment is the workplace, and the toxic person happens to be the manager, you then have the beginnings of a problem that will significantly impact profitability. People are not very productive when they are working in a shell.

To further complicate things, people, just like clams, can take quite a while to open back up once they have clammed up. They get cautious and untrusting. And depending upon how toxic the environment is, or how often the toxic manager appears, it could take a very long time for them to come out of their shells and be productive again.

There is not a lot one can do to expedite that process either. Just like a clam, once people have clamped themselves shut, you can’t force them open. Trying to force a person to open up before they are ready will cause them to clam up again and delay their return to maximum productivity.

Then, when they do begin opening back up, they do so cautiously, opening a bit to test the environment and waiting to see if it is safe. If the threat returns, they clam up faster than before and most likely for a longer period of time.

What Can You Do to Create a Toxin-Free Environment?

Let’s face it, organizations, like nature, can never be completely toxin-free, nor do they have to be in order for them to function well. Besides, no one is perfect. There will be times when someone has a bad day or someone else may be overly sensitive.

To limit unnecessary toxins, you can simply increase your awareness that it is your words and actions that largely define whether you are putting toxins or healthy agents into your environment. Pay attention to how people act around you. Then, when you make a mistake, own it and apologize.

If you act appropriately, they will open up again, especially if you give them some time and re-approach them with integrity.

So, if you do end up polluting your environment, react quickly and rectify the situation, but allow nature to take its course as things

eventually get back to normal. There is nothing more productive or profitable than an organization filled with people who are as happy as a clam yet.


Who would have thought how much human nature mirrors “clam nature?”

Kind of makes me wonder which is smarter….and I am not betting against the


Leave a comment

Avatar About the Author:

previous arrow
next arrow