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?


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

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?

The Future of Education. Review: Coursera “Greek and Roman Mythology”

I finished my first expedition into the world of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – this week. I have completed a 10 week course on Coursera run by a team led by Dr. Struck of Penn State University.  The course was titled Greek and Roman Mythology.

How was the experience?

Coursera: top universities courses online for everyone, for free

In four words: Hard work. Enriching. Fulfilling.

Coursera stated up front that the course would require 8-10 hours per week.  I assumed that given how smart I am (yes, the arrogance remains strong…), I would be able to do it in half the time…  but no.  I was wrong.  The course consisted of 1-2 hours of video lectures each week, 3-4 hours of readings and a 20 question multiple choice quiz covering the week’s learning.  Two short essays were required in week 6 and week 9.  I found myself submitting the second essay at 2:34am on a Sunday night.

The course was more work than I had expected.  The quizes required a dedication of attention that was far beyond the mere background watching of TED talks or other educational youtube videos.  The essays encouraged a deeper reflection on the material.

I learnt more in this 10 week online course than in my own university courses.  Firstly because the course is well designed and the structure doesn’t allow me to leave the hard work for the last week of the class.  Secondly, because I truly wanted to read these ancient myths and think about what they mean for us as human beings.

The role of the bricks and mortar university is going to change.  It is already changing. There is still an important role in bringing people physically together. There is still a role in certifying progress, in providing credentials.  However, the process of learning is not well served by 300 people in a lecture hall listening to an academic. Learning online, directly from the best, structured in an optimized digital format is the future of the knowledge and skill learning aspect of education.

What were we learning?

Coursera description: About the Greek and Roman Mythology Course

The Parthenon

“This course will focus on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, as a way of exploring the nature of myth and the function it plays for individuals, societies, and nations. We will also pay some attention to the way the Greeks and Romans themselves understood their own myths.

Are myths subtle codes that contain some universal truth? Are they a window on the deep recesses of a particular culture? Or are they just entertaining stories that people like to tell over and over?

This course will investigate these questions through a variety of topics, including the creation of the universe, the relationship between gods and mortals, human nature, religion, the family, sex, love, madness, and death.”

We read and analysed the following works during the class:

  • Homer, Odyssey
  • Hesiod, Theogony
  • Homeric Hymns to Apollo and Demeter
  • Aeschylus, Oresteia
  • Sophocles, Oedipus the King
  • Euripides, Bacchae
  • Vergil, Aeneid
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses.

My Final Essay. What relationship is at the core of Myth?

This is the last essay that I submitted for the course.  Finished at 2:34am on Sunday night.  Yep, flashbacks to my days of university were frequent 😉

Question: We’ve seen numerous kinds of relationships under scrutiny in the myths we have studied: (1) relationships between humans and the divine; (2) familial relationships, e.g., fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and sons, etc.; (3) relationships between individuals and communities; (4) relationships between the individual and himself/herself. For this essay, you need to decide which ONE of these 4 types of relationships is most important for the myths we have read, and explore why it is so. Of course, a wise person will see that there is at least some importance in all of them, but for this question, you must choose the most important ONE, and then explore why it is.

My Answer: Myth is about the Relationship to One’s own self

The early Romantic German philosopher Novalis said “The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.” [1] Myth is this meeting between inner and outer world.  As heroes meet gods, kings, queens, monsters and challenges, they discover themselves.

Joseph Campbell speaks of the two paths: the left hand path, and the hero’s journey [2]. The left-hand path is finding one’s role in society. The hero’s journey is a journey of self-discovery.

The most important relationship in the myths that we have read is the relationship between the individual and himself.  The relationships to the divine, to family, to communities are important but serve as a canvas for the hero to discover himself.

Temple at Delphi, the Oracle

The first inscription above the temple of Delphi is “Know Thyself” [3].  Each hero is seeking to “Know Themselves”.

As discussed in the course lecture week 8, the central question of Oedipus Rex is “Who am I?”  Is Oedipus who he is because of land (Cithaeron, Thebes, or Corinth) or genes (birth parents, adopted parents). “Oedipus shows us how our identities can dissolve before our very eyes.” [4]

In the Odyssey, a person discovering themself with the help of the divine is Telemachus.  In Book 1 he is a victim until intervention by Athena allows him to discover his hero, leader aspect.  Upon this transition, he commands his mother: “Nay, go to thy chamber, and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their tasks; but speech shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me; since mine is the authority in the house.” [7, line 356]

In the Bacchae, the god Dionysis wonders if he is really accepted by the pantheon of gods. He is different, his rites and rituals are different. Gods are not immune from the process of self discovery. Even gods are not blessed with self belief. They too must find their own identity as they face the challenges of life.

Virgil’s hero Aeneas follows a parallel journey to Odysseus, but with a “Pietas” character that the Roman culture valued highly.  Virgil is writing at a time of Roman Empire and Stability as opposed to Homer at at time of Greek Exploration and Expansion. [5,8] Pietas, or sense of duty, requires that Aeneas finds his identity in a context of an obligation to society.  He is not free to just be himself.  He must find the integration of who he really is with what his society needs from him.

The central question of the myths is “Who am I?”.  Relationships with others are important – me to Gods, me to family (Oedipus), me to society (Aeneas in Games), me to father/mother (Telemachus), but they serve as a canvas for the central relationship, “knowing myself”.

  1. Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon. David W. Wood, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007.
  2. The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers: Anchor, 1991.
  4. Dr. Peter Struck, Course Notes (Announcements Week 8).
  5. Homer. The Odyssey, A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
  6. Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1887.
  7. Euripides. The Tragedies of Euripides, translated by T. A. Buckley. Bacchae. London. Henry G. Bohn. 1850.
  8. Virgil, The Aeneid, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. New York: Vintage, 1990
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