Leadership Slogans are neither Right nor Effective

Management consultants, university-based commentators, and self-proclaimed self-help gurus have provided oceans of leadership slogans, pithy but memorable guidelines to the best leadership qualities and behaviors.  Among these, “Managers do things right, leaders do the right things.”  “You have to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”  And, “Would you rather be right or effective?”

Now, as you would expect, some of these are helpful, even inspiring.  But many are simply taking up extra space in our already cluttered minds. Even worse, some are actually misleading.

These slogans share several characteristics.  First, they have become so much a part of the folklore of leadership that no one is really sure where they came from.  (All of those just mentioned are from time to time attributed to Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, Marshall Goldsmith, or Peter McWlliams.)

Second, and more important, they assert a half-truth as if it were a whole truth.  They simplify to the point of misdirection. This difficulty is, of course, the problem faced by anyone taking a complex subject and trying to distill its essence.  Doing so is important, especially for leaders, who need to state things in the clearest and most meaningful way. But at some point the drive for simplicity prevents our conveying the full meaning of the issue at hand.

Unfortunately, many leadership slogans fall into this trap.  In an effort to simplify, they forego the subtlety and complexity of the human experience.  And, as they become guides for the values, the ideas, and the actions of leaders they may actually constrain the possibilities of what Ghandi (and more recently Franz Ferdinand) called “right thoughts, right words, right actions.”

Let’s take one of these slogans as a case in point – “Would you rather be right or effective?”  The logic here is that some people are more concerned about their being right than getting the job done. If you are stopped at a four-way stop and it is your turn to go – but you see a car coming full speed from you left with no intention of stopping – sticking to your “rights” and moving into the intersection is probably not a good thing to do. Similarly, marriage counselors associate being right (and placing blame) with most marriage problems.  And there are plenty of other examples.

But, though often helpful, the advice contained in this slogan doesn’t always work.  For one thing, this slogan conflicts with other slogans.  In this case, the implied call to be effective rather than right contradicts the other slogan above: “Leaders do the right things.”  So which slogan do you follow?

Moreover, the slogan implies that it is important in all cases to be effective, but in truth there are plenty of times when it is important to be right.  If my plane is falling from the sky, I want a pilot who knows the right thing to do to bring it down safely. And if the pilot does so, I’d then say that’s a pretty effective bit of flying.  But I certainly don’t want to opposite.  I don’t want someone to whom I have trusted my life to be effective at doing the wrong thing – effectively flying the plane into a mountain.

Things become more difficult when you realize that there are two senses of the word “right” – one is that right means “correct” – and that’s the way we’ve been using the term to this point.  But right also means “ethical.”

Obviously, in the contest between being ethical and effective, being ethical always comes first – or at least it should.  This is the sense underlying the other slogan – “Leaders do the right thing.” We certainly wouldn’t want leaders to effectively do something unethical, though they often do. Mark Twain advised, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

In any case, while the simplicity of leadership slogans makes them tempting, leading by slogans is neither right nor effective.

A Passion for Meaningless Work?

Research tends to show that workers who are passionate about their jobs and consider their work meaningful are more productive than those who don’t. But there are limits to what leaders can do to create meaningful jobs that people can be passionate about, especially at the lower levels of organizations.

Think about how one might identify and pursue one’s passion. Some may be able to identify a passion early on. And for some, doing what they most enjoy becomes a career – professional golfers come to mind.

But these folks are rare. There are limited openings in the “passion professions” and only those with the right combination of skill, talent, connections and just plain luck are allowed to enter.

Others who make that effort and fall short typically find themselves in pretty low paying and often dead-end jobs. And, frankly, it’s a lot easier to be passionate when you have money.

For the rest of us, even if we can identify our passions (which is hard enough), pursuing those passions as a part of our career may not be so easy.

We are likely instead to find ourselves in jobs that provide limited opportunities for self-expression, much less passion. And for many that’s okay – we are willing to work in meaningless jobs in order to have enough money to pursue passions completely outside work.

Others are left searching for the quick self-discovery the self-help gurus recommend – either at work or elsewhere – and often feeling guilty because they can’t figure it out.

Many jobs simply are not all that meaningful, hardly the kind of thing to arouse passion. Maybe the leader can articulate a set of values that some will find compelling, but values stated at the top rarely permeate an organization with general enthusiasm. And indeed there’s an ethical question about whether leaders should even try to “make” followers passionate about their work – or anything else. That’s a personal choice,

If passion, meaning, or purpose lead to increases in productivity, leaders might follow one of two strategies: 1) hire for technical skill and teach the personal qualities or 2) hire for personal qualities and teach technical skills. There are some indications that an increasing number of companies are using the latter strategy.

For example, Southwest is known for its casual, relaxed, and funny flight attendants. But the company doesn’t run a “comedy school.”  Instead it hires people who already fit the image the company desires. Google’s hiring process has much the same orientation.

We are also beginning to discover that having specific achievement goals accompanied by measurable objectives is not the best way to discover one’s passion or calling. Both leaders and others would do well to consider their purpose (not their passion), better stated in terms of “big ideas,” “directions,” or “sets of values.”

This may (happily) lead to the direct opposite of the rationalized life, as in Natalie Imbruglia’s musical response to those who tell her to get some direction: “Intuition tells me, how to live my day.  Intuition tells me, when to walk away.  Could have turned left, but I turned right. But I ended up here (bang) in the middle of a real life.”

It is appropriate and in fact healthy for people to engage in serious reflection and discussion about what is most significant in their lives. Doing so is an important exercise for individuals and especially for potential leaders who want to better understand themselves in order to lead others. But requiring that this be a rational process may be quite limiting.  “Real life” is better built around emotion, intuition and beauty.

Curiosity is Not Just for Killing Cats

A basic premise of much work on innovation today is that innovation is creativity applied to real-life problems. Creativity provides the spark of insight that is manifest in an innovative process or product. But there is another element at play in the process of innovation – curiosity.

In discussions of innovation, curiosity is typically given short shrift. Creativity is seen as the main force leading to innovation. Meanwhile, curiosity labors beneath the surface and without enough recognition. And since curiosity is not fully recognized, it is not sufficiently developed as an essential skill in the process of innovation.

Historically curiosity had a more elevated status. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”  What is it about curiosity that makes it so significant, even if undervalued? Simply put, creativity and innovation are impossible without the natural inclination to be curious about one’s surroundings.

Leonardo da Vinci, certainly a “creative,” commented on the role of observation and curiosity in his life.   “I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of mountains along with the imprints of coral and plants and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How the various circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone, and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”

Observation and curiosity occur almost simultaneously. The act of observation is accompanied by the most basic question of the curious mind – “why?” And the question “why” leads to more precise examination. Observation and curiosity, in turn, lead to creative problem-solving designed to understand and to reshape the phenomena in new ways.

How might curiosity be advanced – short of our being touched by a fairy godmother? At the individual level, there are several things parents and teachers could do to help encourage curiosity in kids – all of which fall into the category of not squelching the natural curiosity of children.  1) Parents and educators should recognize the importance of encouraging the “why” questions as opposed to finding them annoying and shrugging them off to move on to other things. 2) Educational systems, with parental encouragement, could focus on open-ended learning goals rather than simply learning what the teacher prescribes (or what’s likely to be on the exam). 3) Teachers could allow more time for observation and curiosity as opposed to moving immediately toward problem-solving – especially rational problem-solving. “What’s the question” is often more important to answer than “What’s the solution?” Yet the latter seems to get more attention in homes and schools. But a pretty bright guy, Albert Einstein, described himself as exactly the opposite, saying “I have no special talent. I’m only passionately curious.”

At the organizational level, there are similar recommendations, again all designed to eliminate obstacles to our natural curiosity. 1) Replace impenetrable organizational silos with openness, transparency, and the sharing of ideas. By definition, curiosity cannot be constrained; it must be given breadth, perhaps even limitless breadth (though see the comments below on risk).  2) Build cross-functional and cross-disciplinary teams, where people bring different views to the table. NASA managers have commented on how the astronaut corps changed as it went from a group of test pilots who saw the world in very similar ways to a group of doctors, engineers, scientists, and teachers, each bringing different perspectives to their work.  3) Remove obstacles to collaboration. Often the most well-meaning regulations, performance management systems, and reporting mechanisms limit the possibility of people doing what’s most important to creativity and innovation – exercising curiosity together.

There is still one missing element, however. Carries with it risk – remember that curiosity killed the cat. A certain amount of risk is inevitably associated with curiosity. There is risk at the individual level, as curiously exploring dead-end paths or not connecting them with nearby outlets can result in limits on promotions, salary increases, and reputation. And at the organizational level putting too many resources into failed explorations can be very costly, again in many ways.  But for now I suspect that the problem is not too much curiosity and too much risk, but too little. Remember curiosity is not just for killing cats!

*With appreciation to Paul Danczyk for his insights and encouragement. Not a single cat was injured or killed in the production of this post.