Is loyalty to the boss and the company always admirable?

In my career, I’ve experienced times when disloyalty was disruptive and killed any sense of trust. But I’ve also seen cases where too much unquestioning loyalty meant important issues were suppressed until it was too late. It’s made me wonder if open questioning of authority, short of defiance, may be essential if we’re not to lose our way. After all, the United States was created by people ready to fight my English ancestors for the right to live free from unquestioning loyalty to a sovereign.

Loyalty has long been highly valued by leaders. The more authoritarian and dogmatic the leader, the more they prize loyalty in their followers. Dictators—political and organizational— usually surround themselves with “yes-men” eager to prove their loyalty by saying whatever the people in power will find most acceptable.

That kind of loyalty stifles creativity and discourages people’s willingness to speak the truth about their leaders, themselves, or their work. The pressure to fit in and suppress unpleasant realities can be overwhelming. The result is a culture of fear: fear of even appearing “disloyal” by questioning anything the organization or the boss says or does—even if (especially if?) it’s foolish or likely to result in some embarrassing mistake.

To be loyal . . or to speak out?

Getting the right balance between loyalty and initiative isn’t as simple as it sounds. Loyalty is good for comfort and support, but bad for promoting initiative and truth-telling. Organizations need people who support one another. They also need those ready to see with different—even “disloyal”—eyes and bring uncomfortable realities into the open. Without them, everyone gets fat, dumb and happy . . . until the dam breaks.

Ought loyalty to be prized more than curiosity and independent thought? Curiosity is certainly uncomfortable. Skeptics make you mad when they challenge what you’ve come to believe and automatically rely on—especially in areas you maybe don’t want looked at too closely.

Socrates, one of the world’s most revered philosophers, described himself as a “divine gadfly” sent to stir up his fellow citizens and shake them out of their complacency. They valued his efforts so much they had him executed for “corrupting the young” by teaching them to think for themselves.

In any culture—organizational or societal—that prizes loyalty above all else, fear becomes the major emotion: fear of doing or saying anything that might suggest dissension; fear of exercising individual freedom to think and speak. Sadly, some major commercial and political organizations seem to be seeking to produce exactly such a culture around us today. Dissent is dissent, not disloyalty—which is why, in the British House of Commons, the opposition is known as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. You can oppose those in charge—even vehemently—and still be a loyal corporate citizen or patriot. Never allow extremists to brand opposition to their views as disloyal or unpatriotic. The next step from there is recreating the Gestapo.

What is true loyalty?

If your unthinking assumptions are about to break under the pressure of change, shouldn’t you be thankful to those who draw them to your attention in time?

There will be times when true loyalty is best expressed by speaking out. and uncovering or challenging a mistake before real harm is done. That’s the trouble with simplistic attitudes towards complex human issues. Is it more loyal to keep you mouth and eyes shut—and allow the boss or the organization to foul up—or to openly express your concerns and doubts while there is still time to change course?

But will the boss understand? What happens if, loyally, someone points out an embarrassing issue—only to be instantly squashed and humiliated as a result? What about the “disloyal” whistle-blowers who alert the public to hidden corruption and deceit? Aren’t they important and valuable people, often moved by a stronger sense of moral duty than the rest of us?

An unthinking reverence for loyalty as either silence on difficult issues or unquestioning support quickly produces that culture of fear: the culture in which staying silent is the only safe option—since you can always pretend ignorance and claim you were taken by surprise when things went wrong; the culture in which loyalty is so highly valued that people stick together, like lemmings, and loyally jump off the cliff. Competitors ought to cherish such excessively loyal organizations, where no one is ready to rock the boat by pointing out how fast they’re becoming obsolete. It will make their job of taking over the market laughably easy.

A matter of balance

There is a way to reconcile loyalty with openness to uncomfortable truth. It’s based on exercising ethical choice. If people take the time to think through the ethics of trust, and consider carefully the basis of their support for boss or employer, they can usually see where the balance lies between being honest (even if that involves dissent) and being disloyal.

Few things in life are black-and-white, however much some people try to make them so. Failure to question received opinions quickly leads to ethical blindness. Unquestioning loyalty is no loyalty at all. Sometimes what the boss most needs is to hear the truth, before he or she says or does something that will bring harm on themselves and others. Our intellectual and personal freedom is too important to surrender it to help our masters shut themselves away from uncomfortable questioning.

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Western capitalism is fighting a form of business cancer. And the most virulent form of it is short-termism.


In physical cancer, some cells go haywire and turn viciously against the body. This is also what happens when certain core beliefs are perverted or taken to extremes.

Some examples—the beliefs that:

  • greed is good (Hollywood simplification).
  • individual pursuit of selfish aims yields public good (mis-translated Adam Smith).
  • pursuit of short-term corporate goals ends in long-term social success (what’s good for General Motors hasn’t been good for America for some time now).

Those and other beliefs have resulted in rampant short-termism.

A few examples, “ripped from the headlines:”

  • The trend in private equity toward front-end deal fees. Gretchen Morgensen’s NYTimes article quotes Michael Jensen, emeritus of Harvard Business School and the “father of private equity:”
    “…these fees are going to end up reducing the productivity of the model . . . People are doing this out of some short-run focus on increasing revenues.”

    In other words, private equity is good when it subjects bureaucratic managers to the pressure of markets, with say a 3-5 year timeframe. But when the privateers themselves succumb to the lure of instant front-end fees, the greed snake is eating its own tail.

  • The trend in the mortgage industry to convert relationships to transactions—from integrated loan-making and loan-holding, to separating the entire process into various stakeholders—most of whom get their money up front, now. Short term.
  • The IBGYBG mentality in investment banking during several market crashes detailed by Richard Bookstaber in his book A Demon of Our Own Design, that resulted in people making fast deals that would explode on investors down the road, but that paid off nicely up front for the dealmakers, who said not to worry, because—”I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” it’ll be someone else’s problem then.
  • Young financiers opting out of an MBA because the opportunity exists to make so much more money in the short term: “With the growth of hedge funds, you’re getting a lot of really smart people who are getting paid a lot very young,” says Arjuna Rajasingham, 29, an analyst and a trader at a hedge fund in London. “I know it’s a bit of a short-term view, but it’s hard to walk away from something that’s going really well.” Yup on both counts.
  • The current residential real estate recession, driven heavily by speculative buyers betting well beyond their means on continued high prices—“I’ll pay off the loan when I flip it.”
  • The longer term trend in business toward “alignment” of processes—which often assumes the only way to long-term profit is to ensure that every short-term measure is itself profitable.
  • Quarterly earnings pressure, which was one of the original drivers of private equity, back when PE was doing some good.
  • Private equity firms selling equity to the public: “a non sequitur in both language and economics,” according to Gretchen Morgensen’s paraphrase of Michael Jensen. The private equity movement initially shook up stodgy companies that were permanently-funded by stock, where inefficient managers could hang out draining away value for decades. Private equity would buy them and insist on returns in 3-5 years; it left managers no place to hide, and produced real value returns. But when the 3-5 year people themselves start selling permanent stock to investors, they have become what they started out to fight. Which means they’re either stupid or venal. And while I usually opt for stupidity in explaining conspiracy cases, in this one I’d put money on venal.

Is there any relief? Or is this just another case of cheap hustlers exploiting weak human nature that goes with every business cycle?

Three antidotes can work against short-termism. One is pain. Suffering may not be a sufficient condition for social change, but it’s usually a necessary one.

Second is education. Awareness creation can help.

The third is leading thinkers, and there are some hopeful signs. Martha Rogers has begun talking about a lifetime financial perspective on customers:

“Creating maximum value from your customers involves optimization — balancing current-period profits against decreases or increases in customer lifetime values, to maximize your “Return on Customer.”

This isn’t new in finance, accustomed to present-value thinking in pricing financial assets. But it’s new to management thinking, accustomed to quarterly EPS. Robbing future customers robs enterprise value, says Martha. And she’s right.

The aforementioned Michael Jensen announced last month a paper he wrote with Werner Erhard = (the controversial founding father of EST training, and more recently of Landmark Forum) on the subject of—get—integrity.

Here’s a tasty quote from the abstract:

We demonstrate that the application of cost-benefit analysis to one’s integrity guarantees you will not be a trustworthy person (thereby reducing the workability of relationships), and with the exception of some minor qualifications ensures also that you will not be a person of integrity (thereby reducing the workability of your life). Therefore your performance will suffer. The virtually automatic application of cost-benefit analysis to honoring one’s word (an inherent tendency in most of us) lies at the heart of much out-of-integrity and untrustworthy behavior in modern life.

They are right too. You can’t fake trust; trust is a paradox; motives matter. The act of justifying trust by its economic value destroys not only trust, but its economic value. The best economic results come as byproducts, not goals.

Can clearer business thinking beat short-termism? It can’t hurt.

Charles H. Green, author of Trust-based Selling and co-author of The Trusted Advisor (with Maister and Galford), is a speaker and trainer on the subject of trust-based relationships in business. Charlie spent 20 years in management consulting, with The MAC Group and Gemini Consulting. His firm is Trusted Advisor Associates, and he writes the blog Trust Matters.

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The Turtle Principle

Expert leaders inspire their followers through the sheer force and clarity of their vision. Today we look at the seven secrets to achieving and leveraging your leadership vision.

“Make decisions in the short term to satisfy the needs of the long-term.”

The Turtle Principle comes from the Tortoise and the Hare. It states that expert leaders are interested in the benefits of the long-range approach and behave accordingly.

The Personal Leadership Insight Definition of Vision is: “To passionately pursue valuable opportunities.”

  • Clearly identify a personal definition of success. Know what makes you happy, content, challenged and strong. Just as important, identify the characteristics and traits you connect with failure. Knowing what to avoid is just as critical as knowing what to include in your life.
  • When you are setting goals for the future, cross reference them with your success definition. Make certain they are moving you closer to what is important to you. You can’t be too formulaic with goals because of the uncertainty of life. However, leaders always have more things to do than they have time to do it. Leverage this scarcity and invest in highly fruitful activities.
  • Become an expert at something by investing a large portion of time in a small range of activities. This prioritization is critical if your vision is to have relevance and meaning. That is why it is called “vision” and not “visions.”
  • Talk with other people in a long-term context. When you invest in conversations about tomorrow, you invest in tomorrow. Having a vision of where you are heading and where you see your organization heading is important, but that doesn’t make it real to others. Your language needs to reflect the power you feel for your vision. Only then will it inspire others to jump on board.
  • Use positive, optimistic language. It is amazing how many “visionaries” are simply great at talking up the future. This is not a rose-colored glasses approach. You must consider the up and down sides of your vision. However, expert leaders understand the power of their language and how it directs the opinions and behavior of others.
  • Get as clear a picture of your future as you can. Talk with others, listen to people who have been there, and visualize as many aspects as possible. As your vision gets clearer, your passion grows stronger. This visualization also helps you to make it through the extreme challenges you will face while making your vision come alive. I am a huge believer in faith. But I also understand that seeing is believing— even if it’s just in your mind.
  • Leaders with great vision don’t let short-term failures or set-backs break their spirit. You can’t just talk about the future; you have to believe it will come to fruition, no matter what happens today. There are thousands of leaders who have a vision for the future. Expert leaders fight the fights worth fighting and make it through the tough times.
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Why understanding risk is essential to living the way that you want.

Risk is in everyone’s mind at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they understand what it is or how it works. That’s the main reason why so many people, including some supposed experts, constantly get into a mess. Here’s how to avoid joining them.

Risk is one of the most misunderstood ideas in the world today—especially the business world. Despite all the time and effort devoted to risk evaluation and risk management, corporations constantly find themselves subject to far greater risks than they imagined.

The reason for this is rather simple: they confuse risk with probability and try to deal with it primarily by statistical or mathematical means.

Probability is, indeed, numerical. It’s the study of the likelihood that some event or outcome will happen—an attempt to understand the inner workings of chance.

Risk is something quite different. The easiest way to describe it is to say that risk is simply a substitute for knowledge.

How are risk and knowledge linked?

The more you understand something, the less risk is associated with it.

Suppose you want to see your favorite team win the next time you go to a match? What’s the risk that you’ll be disappointed?

The more you know about your team, the more certain you can be about the outcome.

Probability could tell you the odds of your team winning, given their recent record. But knowledge can go much further. If you know that the opposing team is a weak one, its star player will be absent, and its coach was fired two days ago, you’re already well on the way to being fairly certain of the result. Add your knowledge that your own team is the best in the league, will be at full strength, and hasn’t lost a game in 4 months, and you can see the risk of being disappointed is minimal.

Can you eliminate all risk?

Unfortunately not. Nothing in this world is a total certainty—not just because there is an element of randomness in nearly everything, but because our knowledge is never absolute. Even natural laws cannot be treated as lacking any risk, though they come as close to complete certainty as makes little difference. The law of gravity isn’t likely suddenly to stop, though there is, I suppose, always the theoretical possibility that it could.

If knowledge and risk are more or less opposites, it’s clear that having greater knowledge about anything is going to greatly lessen the risks that go with it. The more you know, the less risk you need to take.
Why does this matter?

Throughout life, people constantly find themselves facing the necessity of making decisions in circumstances they know very little about.

That’s why life is risky. It’s peoples’ lack of knowledge or understanding in key areas of of their lives. They must choose, yet lack enough knowledge to do so with any degree of certainty. Sometimes the requisite knowledge simply isn’t available; sometimes they don’t know where to find it; sometimes they haven’t tried to look; sometimes there isn’t time anyway.

So what do they do? The decision has to be made, so they make it.

In most cases, they do so by falling back on some pretty risky substitutes for knowledge:

  • They do what everyone else does, in the erroneous belief that there is safety in numbers. The media encourage this myth by treating opinion as fact. “80% of people believe this,” they say, with the strong implication that it must therefore be correct. “Chosen by 93% of consumers.” There was a time when 100% of living humans believed the earth was flat. Go figure.
  • They follow some folk-saying or rule of thumb. I guess the assumption here is that such sayings must contain some truth to have lasted so long. Maybe so, but it might well be precious little.
  • They stick as closely as they can to what they’ve done before. It isn’t nature or conviction that makes most groups of people conservative. It’s ignorance and fear. Ignorance increases the risk that any change might go wrong and fear makes that possibility appear terrifying. The more ignorant and fearful the group, the more conservative they will be.

There’s only one way to manage risk

Knowledge is the only answer to risk. That’s why learning is so precious: it takes away a great deal of the risk we would all face otherwise. The greatest benefit of modern science is neither medical advances nor soaring productivity: it’s the ability it gives us to live in a world that no longer contains a massive proportion of the daily risks confronted even by our recent ancestors.

Of course, sometimes no knowledge is available and you have to wing it. Or your knowledge stops at a critical point. But, even then, knowledge in principle—conceptual knowledge—can help you to make educated guesses.

Making educated guesses

A little while ago, I wrote an article on how to recognize a civilized organization. A reader took me to task, writing that my ideas would work only from the inside, not if you were seeking a job.

They would undoubtedly work best from the inside, since more knowledge would be available. But they would still work for recruits, provided you used knowledge in principle to make some educated guesses.
The greater the knowledge and education people have—and, critically, actually use—the better they tend to handle risky situations.

Why? They take just as many risks—only those steps don’t look very risky to them. Their conceptual knowledge minimizes the riskiness.

That’s why haste, arrogance, denigration of thought, and reliance on rules-of-thumb—all the hallmarks of Hamburger Management—are at the root of so many of today’s problems. It’s self-induced ignorance, which produces self-induced risks. The macho fools leap in, believing taking risks makes them into instant entrepreneurs.

If you want to lower the risks in your life, and increase its stability and focus, simply slow down, think more, and learn all you can.

There’s no other way.

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If most leaders and executives worked half the amount of time they are working today, I am convinced they would produce much greater output. Before I get a barrage of e-mails arguing this point, let me explain.

The reason is simple. If you had less time to work, you would work on only the things that produced the greatest impact. You would work less on the things you enjoy and more on the things you should. You would meet with only selected people, answer fewer emails, and attend fewer events. Your efforts would be focused only on activities and relationships that produced the greatest return. Moreover, each interaction through the day would be valued at a greater level than today.

I know hundreds of CEOs and entrepreneurs, with organizations from 1 million dollars sales volume to billions in revenue. They have a universal problem that is not dependent on the size of their company. Most are extremely busy and their lives can be described as chaotic most of the time. Yet, however hard they work, they still never have enough time to accomplish everything they want.

However, I have also seen a select few whose lives are very stable—so stable that I would describe them as peaceful. I estimate less than 1% fit in this category. What is their secret?

Would you describe your work life as relaxed? If not, you might try something: To find out what you should be working on, take off at noon today. That’s right, stop working and go home. If you know the day will be over at noon—if you know that’s all the time you have—you will gain clarity, focus, and give priority to the things you should be doing.

Matthew Myers is co-founder and partner of Giant Partners and Giant Impact. He has years of CEO experience, both in start-up and mature companies. Mr. Myers is passionate about helping companies grow by working with CEOs and senior executives to implement strategic growth initiatives and build leaders. You can find additional articles by Matthew at

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The wrong doctrine—or one that is outmoded and ill-suited to circumstances—can cause disaster

All organizations have a “doctrine” for doing things, whether it is clearly stated or left implied by custom and tradition. Doctrine is that set of guiding principles that can be summed up by the phrase: “That’s how we do things in this organization.” But doctrines can become dangerously outdated, unless they are consciously taken out and examined for relevance from time to time.

In military circles, doctrine can be roughly summarized as: “the way we fight wars.” It’s a simple set of guiding principles that is drummed into every soldier, sailor, or airman—and every general at staff college. Here, as an example, is Admiral Lord Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero, explaining his doctrine in typically forthright terms.

“Whenever the Enemy can be discovered they are to be closed with and attacked with all the Vigor which is possible . . . Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight . . . but, in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy.”

Ships of that time fought by firing broadsides at each other at close range, then moving together so that a boarding party could cross to the enemy ship and attempt to capture it by hand-to-hand combat. Nelson’s doctrine was one of all-out attack.

When changing conditions out-pace doctrine

The armies in the American Civil War fought according to an outdated doctrine of formal battles, where opposing forces drew up in line opposite one another, then charged together for a show-down. Weaponry had made this approach obsolete, but the generals on both sides were so habituated to the same doctrine (after all, they had been in the same army before war broke out) that it was continued for the bulk of the fighting. America lost more men killed in that conflict than in all other conflicts before or since.

In the First World War, the British and French armies were committed to a doctrine of offense. They attacked, often with suicidal bravery. A measure of how suicidal can be seen by the casualties. The British army lost 60,000 men killed in one day at the start of the Battle of the Somme. That’s all the inhabitants of a medium-sized township killed in under 12 hours.

The point of these historical examples is to show how doctrine can become so embedded in the mind as to allow truly terrible mistakes to be made, on the basis that there is no acceptable alternative.

Doctrines at work

Everyone who works follows some doctrine of work. No one may have taught it to them deliberately, but it will be there just the same: an approach to work that is seen as more or less inevitable and obvious.

You have one. If you aren’t sure what it is (it’s often so unconscious we’re no longer really aware of it), try completing this sentence, based on Lord Nelson’s words above, with the first works that come to you; “At work, you can’t go far wrong if . . . ” Typical responses might be:
“ . . . you always do your best and work hard.”
“ . . . you’re always a good team-player.”
“ . . . you keep your nose clean and don’t rock any boats.”
“ . . . you’re the first there in the morning and the last to leave at night.”
“ . . . you don’t make mistakes.”
“ . . . you keep a close eye on the pennies.”
“ . . . you keep the customer happy.”

But does it still work?

I’m always surprised how powerful and long-lasting these semi-conscious doctrines are. Like the old generals who sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers in frontal assaults across open ground against machine guns, people go on hurling themselves, over and over again, against the obstacles in their lives, never stopping to ask whether such displays of determination are likely to succeed. Action is what counts. And when you want to know what action to take, that automatic doctrine pops up with the answer.

Today, tens of thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of people are committed to all-out, frontal assaults on the competition, using a tired old combination of excessive work and continual cutting of costs. As in past wars, there are thousands of casualties as a result, but the leaders persist in the doctrine drummed into them since their very earliest days as managers.

Instead of looking for less costly alternatives, they follow the same doctrine they learned so long ago: action matters, cut costs, cut more, work longer hours, make greater sacrifices!

One of the main reasons for slowing down is to allow time to think and ask such vital questions as: Is this doctrine still right for the world as it is today? Will it still work? Can I bear the cost?

Try in your own life. You may be surprised both to discover what a simplistic doctrine you’ve been following—and horrified to realize what it has been costing you.

Doctrine ought to be flexible, constantly renewed, and a matter of careful choice. That it often isn’t is due to people’s tendency to turn some pattern learned in the past into a rigid set of habits that they are afraid to break.

Then the cost in overwork, frustration, stress, and disappointment can rival, in a smaller, more personal way, those piles of bodies on the fields of France in 1915.

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Taking the wrong approach to corporate needs

I work with a large variety of CEOs, senior managers and key employees. If I ask about the needs and issues within the company, I almost always get the same response: ”We need more communication.”

My reaction to that is that it is simply, WRONG!

Companies don’t need more communication. They need more clarity.

  • Clarity of the vision of the company.
  • Clarity of where the company is going (long term and short term).
  • Clarity of HOW the company will get there.
  • Clarity of individual roles and how those roles create value toward the vision.
  • Clarity of how roles must intertwine in order to achieve extraordinary results.
  • Clarity of how the company will hold itself and each individual accountable.

Think about a great basketball team. When things run smoothly within a team they find that less communication is needed, not more. When the team is really “in the zone” and everything is going perfectly, what is the coach doing? Very little! He’s not yelling, or sending in new plays, or screaming at the assistant coaches. He’s letting the team perform at its peak level . . . because of their clarity of purpose.

The point is, when managers and employees have clarity of where they are going and how to get there they need less communication, not more.

Great teams don’t usually talk in paragraphs or even sentences to communicate. They are so in-tune with one another they talk in just few words and eye-contact. They have so much clarity of purpose among them that they require less communication, not more.

The next time someone in your company pushes for more communication, remember, “Don’t strive for more communication. Strive for more clarity!”

David Woods, CEO/Partner Giant Partners and Giant Impact, leads a team of internationally-known strategists and leadership experts helping companies throughout the world build strategic plans to create strong sustainable growth. David is an expert in strategic thinking. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and universities. You can find his other articles at:

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The secret of staying in charge and relaxed is knowing what is controllable

We live in a world obsessed with control: monitoring, measuring, assessing, rating, every kind of controlling. Whenever something goes wrong, we look for who is to blame; who should have been in control and stopped the problem before it developed—but didn’t. This is wholly unrealistic. It also contributes in a strongly negative way to the anxiety and stress that has become so common.

Trying to control the uncontrollable is a recipe for exhaustion and frustration. To be held responsible for what you cannot control induces anxiety and fear of unjust reprisals if it all goes wrong. The route to a better understanding of control begins with recognizing that there are three distinct facts that apply to whatever you are seeking to control:

  1. Some things cannot be controlled, whatever you do: the weather, other people’s thoughts, the results of most actions, external events.
  2. Some things can always be controlled: what you choose to say or do (with very limited exceptions), how you respond to your emotions and moods, what you believe.
  3. Many things that cannot be controlled directly, but can be influenced to a varying extent: public opinion, consumer behavior, other people’s actions, the effects of your actions.

The first group—the uncontrollable things—covers a great deal of what many of us are told that we must control. That’s why people get so stressed. You cannot, rationally, be held responsible for quarterly results, since they are not directly controllable by you . . . or anyone else. Part of the motivation for the scandals that erupt from time to time is people trying to to control the uncontrollable. If you can’t control results, maybe you can produce them by cheating or falsifying figures. All anyone can reasonably be held responsible for is making rational and sensible efforts to increase the likelihood of the desired results being obtained. Once that is done, the rest lies in the lap of chance.

Oddly, people treat the second group—things that are almost entirely controllable—as if they have little or no ability to control them at all.

They say they couldn’t help losing their temper (of course they could); they couldn’t stop themselves saying something hurtful (all it takes is not saying it); or they couldn’t seem to grasp what they needed to learn (which probably meant they failed to make the effort, or weren’t interested anyway).

None of this is true, yet we persist in excusing ourselves from responsibility in the one area where direct responsibility is possible: our own behavior. “I can’t help it!” people wail, when they certainly can. It may be tough or painful or unpleasant, but you are always responsible for 99% of your own actions. To pretend otherwise is to lie to yourself and to others.

Then there’s the category of what may be influenced, but not controlled. What are you responsible for there? Doing your best to influence things successfully, nothing more. You can influence customers to purchase, but you cannot make them do so by honest means. You can train, coach, support, and otherwise influence subordinates to do good work. You cannot force them to do so.

The limits of personal responsibility

It would greatly reduce stress, overwork, and macho management posturing if people recognized the limits of responsibility more clearly. It’s easy to toss slogans around and claim results are all that count and people must be judged by them. That doesn’t make it true . . . or even sensible.

Equally, to allow the notion that personal behavior is somehow outside people’s control is to open the door to an endless excuse for every kind of wrong-doing and laziness. Take the rubbish spread about motivation. No one needs to be “motivated” to take necessary action. You can do it, motivated or not. Nor can I motivate you or anyone else, since motivation is a feeling and other people’s feelings are firmly in the “uncontrollable” category.

The bad news is that a great deal of current management practice is deeply flawed because it assumes that people can—and must—control what cannot be controlled. You can measure, audit, analyze, rate, and chart it all you like, but you still can’t control outcomes, results, global trends, or market movements.

The good news is that no one needs to make their actions and behavior contingent on feeling inspired, motivated, happy, excited, or any other emotion. If you see a need for action and know what to do, you can simply do it. If speaking out seems right, then speak. If staying silent is correct and helpful, say nothing. It’s always your choice; always under your direct control.

Three steps to civilized attitudes on control

Work would be a far more pleasant and civilized place if we all followed three simple rules:

  1. Everyone must accept responsibility for his or her own speech and actions. No excuses.
  2. No one can be held accountable for results that are outside their control.
  3. Excellence is shown by controlling what can be controlled and skillfully influencing those areas where influence is possible.

That’s it. Follow those three steps and leaders would have to drop the macho nonsense of yelling for results at any price, and concentrate instead on skillful ways to draw the best from whoever works for them. Assholes and jerks would be held totally responsible for their noxious behavior, and no one would be allowed to wriggle out of personal responsibility by claiming that they “couldn’t help themselves”
or “hadn’t been motivated.” Stress would be greatly reduced and no one would fear being criticised for what obviously was not their fault.

Not quite Nirvana, but a good step along the way there.

PLEASE NOTE: from August 1st, this blog will leave the Blogger platform and re-surface on Wordpress. I will leave all posts up to that point on Blogger, at the current URL. New posts will be found from August 1st onwards at

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Why future generations will smile at our foolishness.

Each generation sees the myths and beliefs of earlier generations as comic and childish. Today, we can’t see how the Ancient Greeks ever believed in such obviously human-like gods as Zeus or Apollo, with their feuds, love affairs, and petty jealousies. The beliefs of medieval alchemists seem amazingly silly. Victorian assumptions of the white man’s inherent superiority would be totally laughable, were it not for the sinister use made of them later—and the fact that some misguided people still hold to such nonsense even today.

What are today’s mythologies: the ones that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will smile over and dismiss as too laughable and primitive to be worth more than historical notice?

One that I would put into that category is our cult of the successful (or successfully self-promoting) business leader: the belief that those in charge of successful businesses are somehow endowed with rare wisdom and insight, far beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.

Isn’t it odd that, when things are going well, such people happily accept as much of the credit as possible; but when problems arise, they claim that it all happened without their knowledge?

How is it that organizations can spend millions on salary and share-options packages to attract and retain star executives; yet later accept their assurances that any scandals and ethical lapses were outside their control? Which position is correct: the leader as hero, single-handedly reversing the fortunes of some ailing business; or the leader as frail human being, doing his or her best in situations too complex for any one person to correct?

Let’s all agree that the hero leader is a myth, like tales of Sir Galahad or Robin Hood. Given the size of today’s large organizations, no single person can control more than a tiny fraction of their functioning, however long the hours that they work. It’s impossible for top executives even to know much of what is happening all the time, let alone control it.

Are CEOs mostly actors?

The majority of leaders spend more time in posturing, playing politics, and polishing their public images than in affecting the actual course of the business, which runs along quite smoothly without their input. Most of the time they are actors, speaking lines put into their mouths by speech-writers and PR people; putting their names to reports and documents that others have prepared for them; acting as the pubic face of whatever ruling clique is currently in charge of the running of the business.

Only occasionally are they called upon to make a real decision. That’s how it seems, but even then, most of the decisions that bear their name are agreed quietly beforehand by those who are really in charge. That isn’t to say that the request made to a CEO—or even to the Board—doesn’t look like a decision. There are many techniques for presenting things in such a way that the decision you want is the only possible one for a committee, or an individual, to make. Indeed, no wise manager ever allows a matter to reach decision stage without being 100% certain that it will go the way he wants: the way he or she has slanted the presentation, adjusted the data, manipulated the figures, and chosen the “rival” options. The executives at the top can be relied upon to be so busy, so remote from any of the detail, and so eager to show their decisiveness that few, if any, ever question the information placed before them in any more than a superficial way.

Why the leadership cult?

Why do we have this cult of leadership? Why are scores of books published each year, thousands of training courses and seminars attended, and reams of newsprint devoted to this skill, this vague concept, this largely mythological entity known as leadership?

In part, I believe, because we all recognize, deep down, that we cannot control our organizations or our working lives. It’s this lack of real control that makes us so desperate to find something or someone that we just hope might improve our ability to influence events. We want to be in control; we think we ought to be in control—or we believe someone should be—and so we place that duty on someone and hope it might be true.

There’s also the human tendency to want a scapegoat when things go wrong. Whom can I blame? Whom, in the USA especially, can I sue? If someone is to be blamed, that person must have been in control—or ought to have been, if they were not. Look at how regularly CEOs are removed when things go wrong, even though they probably had little to do with it.

Our mythology of the hero-leader, working 70 hour weeks with his or her hands on all the levers of the organizational machine, is so much fanciful nonsense. Trying to achieve such a picture is killing people—quite literally. It’s all for nothing too.

So what should leaders do?

Truly successful leaders don’t even try to control events. They recognize that the only way to direct a large group of people is through some ruling idea. That’s what they supply: a vision to believe in; a set of ideas to guide the thousands of individual decisions being made every day without any direct input from them.

“Without a vision, the people perish.” These biblical words sum it up. What we should be doing is seeking out leaders with imagination: people who can think and produce fresh visions for others to follow. Naturally, such people will need time and space to do their thinking. You can’t expect anyone to come up with strong strategic viewpoints if their days are filled with pointless meetings and administrative trivia. Nor if they’re exhausted by crippling work schedules and constant traveling.

Choosing leaders from those who get to the top by competitive guile and ruthlessness won’t work . That’s responsible for today’s cadre of self-promoting windbags in corporate boardrooms. Nor will the myth of leader as “man of action” serve our needs. Thought without action has long been the stock-in-trade of academic ivory towers, but action without thought—the hallmark of the current crop of macho managers—is far worse. Plenty of people can take action, but it requires someone (or some team) with real wisdom and insight to guide that action wisely.

Let’s drop the mythology, forget the Hollywood version of corporate leadership, and start allowing people of wisdom and understanding to fill top positions. Then give them the time to do what they are there for—think.

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Without sufficient time to think, people react by re-hashing the story of some past event.

Those who are too busy, too stressed, or too eager to jump into action are condemned to repeat the past with minor variations. Reaction replaces thought. That’s why so many needless mistakes are made and so many organizations today find themselves stuck in outdated patterns based on remembered glories.

What happens when you’re forced to make a decision almost in an instant? There’s obviously no time to weigh the options, consider fresh possibilities, or even analyze the circumstances in any depth. All that’s available are “gut feel” or memory. Both are based on “stories” you tell yourself about what to do.

These stories have become the automatic response of choice for tens of thousands of harried people every moment of every day: folk stories of management, tales of how others say that they coped, or the fading recollection of how they once coped themselves, sometime in the past.

It’s as if you were unexpectedly invited to tea at Buckingham Palace and based your behavior either on what your grandmother’s friend used to say about good manners; your recollection of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in “Alice in Wonderland” (last read when you were six); or a particularly tense meal with an elderly relative that took place six years ago in Wisconsin. All of them probably make great stories—certainly “Alice in Wonderland” does—yet none is really a substitute for thought, research, or seeking advice on the topic of taking tea with the Queen of England.

I know this is an exaggerated example, but it’s here to make an important point. No matter how recent your past experience, or how seemingly useful some informative story you once heard or read, they cannot provide more than a general approximation to what might be needed in this situation, right now.

Principles versus rules

When you’re under pressure, your mind wants a quick answer. The greater the pressure, the more appealing an instant solution appears. Besides, there’s no time to trawl through a long list of half-recalled events or past topics. Instead, you jump for the first, most vivid tale that seems to fit.

What stories are best at doing is conveying general principles in a vivid way. A good story has power to communicate an idea far more effectively than a dry, analytical exposition. Events stick in your mind when they’re noteworthy or unusual. What is commonplace is quickly forgotten. What stories are not includes many things: a detailed explanation, a set of instructions, an analytical exploration of options, a careful review of the available evidence. For our purposes, the two most important are these: stories are not instructions and they are not rules.

Chained to the past

Sadly, that’s exactly how folk-stories, experience-stories, or example-stories are most often used: as a firm set of instructions on what to do when you’re faced with a decision and are too busy, too stressed, too exhausted, too confused, or too damn eager to take time to think carefully. Shooting from the hip has become the automatic choice for all too many leaders, especially in the USA; which is probably why they so often shoot themselves in the foot.

The past may, sometimes, offer guidance on how to deal with the future, but it’s never a foolproof guide. Something in the current situation is always unique. Some elements have changed since the last time. Parts will never have occurred before. Each repetition of past actions will be a little more “off” and liable to error, even if that story that you’re telling yourself ever really provided as good a solution as you think it did. There’s no good substitute for effective thought. It’s what distinguishes the human race from other creatures on this earth. Many animals have highly-tuned instincts, the ability to learn from experience, and senses that are far superior to ours. Yet only humans, so far as we now, can think in the way that we do.

Why throw that away to please those who treat you only as a means of getting the greatest number of tasks done, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest possible time? You can be sure that any mistakes made will be counted against you; and all excuses will be summarily dismissed.

Instinctual reactions and experience-based ideas are extremely useful—but not in the way most people use them: as a quick solution to deal with an overloaded schedule. What they do best is help point your thinking in useful directions.

Self appointed experts know all the answers. True experts just know all the best questions.

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