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.

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.

Getting Credit or Getting Stiffed

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In a recent classroom exercise, Ellen was putting the last piece in the puzzle, when Allen took the bright cardboard piece from her hand and put it in place, smiling at his contribution to solving the puzzle.

This scenario, in many variations, is played out in groups and organizations daily. We might call it the “Credit Game.”

In one version of the Credit Game, Chris voices a great idea, but Sam gets credit for it. Sometimes the one who gets credit actually “steals” the idea, modifies it, and claims it as his own. More often the one giving credit just mistakenly gives credit to the wrong person.

In another more subtle variation of the Credit Game, John makes a statement in a meeting and later someone says, “as Bob said . . . ,” and then repeats John’s comment. In this case, there’s no deliberate theft involved; the one giving credit just mistakenly gives credit to the wrong person.

Why would that happen and what should we do about it? And does it matter?

To answer the last question first, emphatically “Yes,” it does matter. Credit is one of the central currencies in organizations, and often makes all the difference in raises, promotions, and general “standing” in the organization. Typically, it makes little difference whether there is evidence to back up the attribution of credit, credit exists in the more important world of perception. The one who gets credit benefits, the one who should have gotten credit gets “stiffed.”

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In cases of outright theft, as in Allen’s placement of the puzzle piece, there is clear injustice. This is an ethical issue. People shouldn’t steal the ideas of others and managers should be attentive to the possible misappropriation of ideas. The manager should be sure to give credit to the one to whom credit is due.

Someone getting credit for an idea after building on someone else’s original idea presents a more complex problem and raises the question of whether credit should actually go to individuals or teams. Good ideas are rarely fully “hatched” by one person; they are the result of conversation, experimentation, building on and refining ideas, and collaboration. We say we value teams and teamwork, but most performance management systems continue to focus on and give credit to the performance of individuals. Still, it’s incumbent on the manager to be accurate about her attribution of credit, whether to an individual or a group.

But what about the case in which the manager (or a colleague) simply attributes an idea or a helpful comment in a meeting to the wrong person? This really gets complex. To be honest, sometimes we simply don’t remember who said what in a meeting and attribute the comment to the wrong person. But what if our memory is selective, clouded by other considerations, like gender or race or culture?

There is considerable evidence that women’s voices are often not “heard” by male (and even female) managers and colleagues. That’s again an injustice, an ethical issue, and should be addressed in organizations as in the society generally. There’s probably no more obvious case in today’s organizations of the wrong person (or people) getting credit than this. And it’s not just a women’s issue; it’s also incumbent on male managers and leaders to take up this cause as well.

Similarly, race and culture may enter into the mix. People from different cultures express ideas in different ways. And they are “heard” in different ways by others. Obviously, sensitivity to differences can assure that the benefits of diversity – the bringing together of many viewpoints and ideas – are not lost in the babel of differences.

Finally, there are variations in the way ideas presented. Often a sense of “presence,” a strong voice, even “leaning in” (male or female) will make a difference in what (or who) the manager (or others) attend to and give credit to. Managers should be attentive to the way different people present their ideas and not let “style” become more important than “substance.”

And for the victim, the one who got “stiffed,” what options are there? Unfortunately, not many. You can try to present your side of the story to management, but that’s hard to do without appearing either whiny or egotistical. You can work on your presentation skills to make even your most limited comments memorable (a little story-telling can go a long way here).

But these suggestions will only slightly improve your chances. Maybe the best strategy is to continue to voice your good ideas. Sooner or later, people will start listening! And you will get the credit you deserve!