Brandt On Leadership -- Masking Candor With Catch Phrases

July 13, 2005
What's behind comfy comparisons, breezy bromides and cute clichés? A fear of the truth.

Leadership is an Art, not a Science.

Except when it's a War. Or, then again, a Baseball Game, where it's almost always the bottom on the ninth, with two down, three on and the Leader at bat.

Mostly, though, the leadership I see these days is a cliché.

Some bosses lead by invoking sports metaphors, whether football (We just need to block and tackle . . . ), baseball (We'll just have to play 'em one at a time . . . ), basketball (Let's not take a three-point shot when there's an unguarded layup in front of us . . . ) or any of a thousand others. No matter that in every sport there are more losers than winners, or that as the players age, they grow not wiser and more powerful (as most of us hope to do), but weaker and more superfluous. These bosses know that child inside us still hopes to become famous forever by making the winning run/touchdown/goal/putt in the Championship, and we fall for it every time.

Others hope to inspire greatness by using a military vocabulary, with talk of "battles" for market share, Survival of the Fittest and "all-out wars" for shelf space. No matter that in a world of collaborative product development and extended supply chains, this morning's enemy may be this afternoon's ally. Or that in a real war, you don't go home at 5 p.m., if you go home at all.

Still other bosses use quotations to cover up the fact that they like clichés just as much as the next leader (after all, When the going gets tough, the tough get going -- Billy Ocean). They feel that even though the thought isn't original, the fact that they can recite it still makes them look smart and well-read. Or, as Dorothy Sayers wrote: "A facility for quotations covers the absence of original thought."

And then there are bosses whose maxims are just plain stupid. I once had a manager who commented upon nearly every occurrence: "Well, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye."

To this day, I wonder what wouldn't be.

Maybe even funnier than the clichés and bromides we use to lead is why we feel the need for them in the first place. It could be because deep down we suspect that we don't really know what we're talking about, and that we're trying to conceal that scary fact from our colleagues -- or maybe even from ourselves. Or it could be that on some level we understand that what we do for a living -- that the reason for all the endless meetings, mind-numbing memos and knee-scrunching travel -- is ultimately so trivial or meaningless that we have to use glory-evoking metaphors just to get out of bed in the morning.

More than likely, though, we manage with hackneyed phrases and sayings because it's easier than actually having to sit and come up with an honest or original point-of-view. We know that candor often makes corporate blood run cold. We've learned, through painful experience and bad metaphor, that although a turtle can't get anywhere without sticking his neck out, that's also a good way to get his head lopped off. And we've all had enough bosses to nod in sad agreement with Thomas Edison: "There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking."

Just don't quote me on any of this.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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