Like many bloggers, I am regularly contacted by publicists who send me new books, hoping for an endorsement as part of a viral marketing plan. I have a stack of these books about leadership and management. A few are good. Some are not good at all, and for a variety of reasons, the largest of which is the implicit claim to certainty, authority, and simplification by authors about subject areas that are notoriously gray. One of these books — it is unimportant to name — stood out for me in this regard. Each chapter began with a page devoted to a quotation from colleagues about how knowledgeable and skillful the author of this book, a former executive, really is. The effect was vain and self-serving, as if to prove the author’s credibility through the endorsements of friends and former subordinates. I wondered about the intention. Initially, I thought the book might have been self-published but it was not. Sadly, it had the imprint of a major publisher.
Perhaps the reason such books are published is inside us, inside our hunger for voices that promise certainty, authority and sure answers — not more questions and complexity. Along with other forms of authority, I’ve also noticed how we like science, such as the discoveries of brain chemistry, to explain things, especially the challenging stuff of human behavior. Another recent book that crossed my desk shows how uncivil behavior is costly to business because peoples’ feelings get hurt and they withdraw or take revenge — and this can be explained in terms of what is happening in the brain. I have to ask, didn’t we already know this? Why do we need the chemical evidence? But apparently we do. It makes it certain, “objective,” verified by experts who have proven these things empirically.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against science or confidence in one’s views about gray topics. I’m simply suggesting that perhaps leadership, in its essence, cannot be so easily reduced, no matter how much we might hunger for that feeling. And more so, to try to do so constantly does us a disservice.
I remember a class I taught some years ago. At the beginning, I asked people what they wanted to learn. One of the participants in this particular session spoke up honestly. “You know, I don’t really want to sit here all day,” she said. “What I’d personally like is to know what leadership is and what it is I need to do to do it — and that’s all. Please just tell me, so I don’t waste my time here all day.” The rest of the class laughed, but the participant was dead serious, and I applauded her for being so clear about her needs. But I also had to explain that leadership doesn’t come via a formula from an outside authority; that it is not a matter of simply doing certain known things repetitively. It’s not a formula. I think the person was hoping for a short lecture titled, “The Nine Secrets of Effective Leadership” and I was sorry to disappoint her.
The problem, of course, is that there are not nine secrets, no matter how many times we try to discover, create, or define them. The stuff of leadership actually cannot be quantified in this way, which is, perhaps, precisely why we keep trying. I certainly find myself trying from time to time, including as part of this weblog. But I’m coming to believe that leadership in its essence is really quite shadowy and imprecise.
Let me share something of what I mean. A common leadership discussion topic is the difference between leadership and management. A recent inquiry about this subject, for example, to the Leadership Think Tank Group of LinkedIn has garnered over three hundred comments! We keep talking about this potential distinction as if one day some precise answer will be found. We pretend that the question is ultimately answerable — which is why we keep talking — but we never actually achieve a final answer at all, simply an ongoing dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with this dialogue, per se — it’s a constructive, awareness building activity — but it is a subjective thing and a personal hypothesis that comes of it, not some absolute truth.
Suppose we go in a different direction altogether. We give up listening to experts for awhile. Suppose we assume that leading cannot be objectively defined at all beyond a certain point; for example, in terms of the sheer number of those who say they admire a particular leader. Suppose instead we assume that leading means being more frequently bathed in these unanswerable questions and dialogues than rigid answers, that leading is often less in fostering grand changes than little ones, that it is not a statement of authority or expertise at all, but a confession of a humble purpose, subjective in the extreme and about things that are incomplete, imperfect, and very impermanent. Suppose it is in the act of creating the questions. Then it seems to me we would be talking about something that is actually new and fresh, really alive, and like life itself, not something asserted as certain, and therefore already dead.
I’ve probably told this story before, but it is relevant. I happened to be working with an executive team on the verge of making some organizational shifts. It’s been so long ago I no longer remember what they were about, but I suspect the implementation of several new company-wide programs. Anyway, during the discussion a number of the executives were noticeably uncomfortable about the plan for roll-out and this seemed to be because they had not been given one. Several said they thought there would be “major fall-out” if the executives did not act perfectly in concert. In fact, a suggestion was kicked around to develop a script they all could literally read to staff to ensure consistency in the message. The conversation went on in this vein for twenty minutes or so before the CEO intervened, in a calm voice noting that having a script was probably the last thing they wanted to do. He suggested alternatively that they continue to talk about the problems of consistency and alignment but understand that in the end they would be there alone to make the announcement to people and that these announcements necessarily would vary from one another because, after all, the executives were all different people with different styles. If it were too uniform, he said, the employees would see right through the changes and know they were not actually being taken seriously, that the executives were simply carrying out orders that didn’t mean that much to them. “Raw is better,” he said. After a pause, he continued, “And, yes, we’ll make mistakes. There will be discrepancies in what we say and we will get caught in them. But that will be an opportunity to continue to talk about the changes, to talk to one another, and keep the dialogue open with employees. If it is ‘perfect,’ we’re done for.” Instead of agreeing with the executives’ anxieties and asking the Employee Communications Department to write that script for everyone, the CEO asked people to be themselves and to be real.
Tell me which one of the nine secrets of leadership (or ninety secrets or nine hundred) this story belongs to. Is it the secret about being authentic? About creating strategic alignment? Perhaps it’s the one on telling the truth, fostering engagement, or being courageous. Maybe it’s a secret called trust in self and others.
We are so fond of order and knowing for sure. We like experts. We want our concepts and models and proven answers, our “operational definitions,” our conformity. What I am increasingly confident about is that the small, the imperfect, the imprecise, the awkward — and the raw — will escape it all, which is, perhaps, why they continue to be our greatest teachers.