Monday, June 4, 2012

On Leadership: Serious – Yes, Boring – No

I recently caught up with an article by Joel Stein on the Harvard Business Review website entitled, “Boringness: The Secret to Great Leadership.” His title for the article is wrong, though a good deal of the message inside is right. He notes that the leaders he observed didn’t obsess over the level of their charisma or how tough they looked. Instead, the leaders demonstrated humility, maintained focus, were fair and had good listening skills. To me, that means these individuals are earnest and authentic but are by no means boring. I don’t understand why some people automatically assume mutual exclusivity.

I reflect on this in greater detail in my own book, Camelot, Inc. In the chapter “Dutiful versus Inspired Thinking,” I reject the false choice of either/or. One can be tough and fair as well as serious and interesting. My reaction to the title of Mr. Stein’s HBR article was similar to the one I had when reading a particular line in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It was said of an aging King Arthur that he “had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.” In Camelot, Inc., I wrote:

“What was meant by this? Was this an insult? Is there an implication that dutiful thinking is inferior to creative thinking? A dutiful thinker is a habitual thinker, one who is always observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future.

Peter Drucker, the iconic management and leadership expert, wrote in the concluding chapter of his breakthrough book, The Effective Executive, “What is being developed here, in other words, is leadership—not the leadership of brilliance and genius, to be sure, but the much more modest yet more enduring leadership of dedication, determination, and serious purpose.”

One who perseveres and chips away at a problem until it’s reduced to a manageable nugget deserves great credit. Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian general and father of modern military strategy, wrote in his epic On War that “if we were to ask what sort of intellect is most closely associated with military genius, observation and experience inform us that it is the analytical rather than the creative mind, the more all-encompassing than the narrowly focused mind, the cooler rather than the hot-tempered mind that we should more readily entrust in war with the well-being of our brothers and children, and the honor and safety of our country.””

I’m for a balanced approach to leadership – a one-dimensional personality is not the best recipe for influencing others. We should all be serious in our purpose but without an ability to generate any sparks of interest, no one will pay attention, no one will rally. In the end, there will be no one to lead.

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