Leadership by Slogans is Neither Right or Effective
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
The literature on leadership is replete with quotations from highly-regarded politicians (are there any left?), corporate executives, and professional “personalities.” For example, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Or, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Similarly, 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. (That’s probably why we call these folks “righteous.”) 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. The extreme case of the Nazi death camps comes to mind, but there are certainly les dramatic examples as well. 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.
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance ofLeadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.