The 3 Hardest Words in Management

What are the 3 words that managers find hardest to say?

They are possibly the 3 words that parents find hardest to say to children.  They are 3 words that teachers very rarely say to their students.

They are not “You’re the Best”. They are not “I love you”.  What might they be?

Confused…

The 3 hardest words for a manager to say are “I don’t know.”

The need to act under the lack of full information does not give the excuse of not needed to do the work.  One must do the work to examine the data that is available, to seek advice from wise counsel, to speak to others who have experience; but the analysis once done, must end.  A decision must be taken by the leader.

Orchids are not Fragile

I am reading Nassim Taleb’s latest book “AntiFragile” at the moment.  I received 2 gifts of this book for Christmas – I do hope it is not because I am generally seen as “fragile” and in need of some increased strength…

I remember a conversation with my friend Xavi, who runs a gardening business.  We were talking about Orchids.  He explained “there is a widespread idea that Orchids are difficult plants, they are fragile.  This is not true.  Any plant that has survived the millions of years of evolution to survive in its form today is in no way fragile.  It is not suited to certain environments, but it is not fragile.”

Most complex organic systems not only survive uncertainty, chaos, disorder, time… they thrive.  They grow stronger though dealing with their environments.  There are forests that need fire – certain trees can only grow past a certain point if they face fire.  A human muscle will atrophy if not used, it will grow stronger through being worked, through being damaged.

Modern education equates volatility with risk, equates non-standard with failing.  Statisticians hate the outliers.

Nassim’s central idea is that we cannot predict risks, but we can predict a system’s capability to cope with risk.  We cannot predict an earthquake, but we do know whether the 400 year old cathedral or the poorly built modern apartment block will fall first.  We cannot predict a financial crisis, but we can predict which bank will fail first.  We cannot predict loss of employment, but we can see which human will come back strong the fastest.

Leading in the Real World

The real world has surprises.  Hemmingway said that the “true” parts of his stories were the most un-believable.  Fiction is never as crazy as reality.

There are 3 things a good leader must learn to be able to do:

  • Act under Uncertainty
  • Take the Painful Decisions
  • Own the Decision

Acting Under Uncertainty

I teach a class towards the end of the course on the MBA program where my objective is to create uncertainty.  As the students give their answers, I give no expression, neither verbal nor non-verbal as to whether I agree with their answer.  This creates tension in the class.  The students are used to a class where they say their answer and the professor either writes it up on the board or grimaces.  If the professor writes it up, I got the answer right.  If the professor grimaces, I change my answer until I get a nod and a note on the board.

I believe education from “The All-Knowing Professor” creates a dangerous tendency for future leaders.  In the real decisions of life, there is nobody there to nod their head, nor to say “no” or “incorrect”.  There are many people making lots of noise, and the leader needs to commit to their course of action without achieving 100% consensus, or 100% of the information that could prove the course of action.  Leaders must be able to do enough work to be fairly sure they have a good course of action, and then commit to that course of action; and get others to commit.

If MBAs are learning always to wait for someone else to give then certainty, then they are not learning to lead.  We need to ensure that tomorrows leaders are getting practice in the world of uncertainty.  They are getting practice at having to move forward without all the information.

Taking the Painful Decisions

Odysseus must choose between definitely losing a few of his men by passing closer to Scylla, or possibly losing all of his men passing nearer to Charybdis, the whirlpool.  There was no “good” alternative.  MBA cases, video games, TV series tend to allow the hero to find a “good” outcome.  They allow the business to survive with nobody losing their job.  They allow the main character to finish the journey and get back to a comfortable life.  If you have a good option and a bad option, this is not a decision.  It is obvious.  A leadership decision is always between 2 bad options.

Many of school’s choices are between a good and a bad outcome.  Most of life’s choices are between two bad outcomes.

Own the Decision

When I was young, 12 or 13 years old, I was once caddying for my father.  We were at a par 3 and we discussed what club to hit.  I suggested a 7 iron.  He thought it was not enough, but after a pause, took the 7 iron anyway.  He had a look at the green, the flag.  He took a few practice swings. He stood up to the ball.  He swung the club making good contact with the ball.  It soared up and was in line with the pin.  It hung in the air for 2, 3 seconds… and then dropped…  15 meters short, landing in the sandy bunker.

He made a pained grunt and as he returned the club to me I said “sorry, I gave you the wrong club”.  He said, “No, you are the caddy, but I am the golfer. I chose wrong.”  At the time I remember feeling bad.  I felt that I wasn’t “respected” by him, that he didn’t treat my advice as serious advice.  Now I think that he acted then as he has always acted.  He owned the decision.  I gave advice, but at no point did it become my “fault”.  He owns his decisions, whether in golf, in business or in life.

Blainroe golf club 15th hole, where I learnt my golf

Learning to take responsibility for the choice, where it is the leader themselves who must choose, is a challenge.  It takes psychological maturity to own a decision that cannot necessarily be justified with the data.  It takes psychological strength to deal with the slings and blows of others who have not had to take the decision.  Leadership is solitary.  Any education of leaders must help the leader find the mental strength necessary to be alone.

Being alone and being lonely are different.  Alone is a choice.  Lonely is the desire to have someone else to take away the burden.

A good leader has mentors, friends, advisors…  but when the decision comes, it is they and they alone who are responsible.

Increasing your Question to Answer ratio

In an uncertain world, the art of “Muddling Through” is of greater importance than the art of long-term strategic planning.  Dealing with the chaos requires accepting the chaos, and then taking quick steps to understand the map, the compass.  In management life, giving answers shrinks our understanding; asking questions increases our understanding, our capacity to adapt.

How many of your statements are answers and how many are questions?

The person asking the questions is in control of the conversation.  It is hard to remain open to other’s ideas.  It is hard to stop saying what it is that I want to say, and giving the other what it is that they need to hear.

The Best Questions…

  • The best Leadership Question:  “What is the next right thing to do?”
  • The best Teaching Question: “What do you think?  What other options do you see?”
  • The best Coaching Question: “You have achieved what you set out to accomplish.  Imagine yourself there.  What does it feel like?”
  • The best Friendship Question: “How are you?”
  • The best Parenting Question: “What was the best moment of your day?”
  • The best Sales Question: “(I understand that price is important.)  What other criteria are important in making this decision?”  (The implicit question: “What are you comparing this to?”)

These questions come from my blog series The Origin of Leaders over at ActiveGarage.com.

What do you think?

Let me see how many times I can say “I don’t know.  What do you think?” today.

So… in the comments below…  What do you think?