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03.20.13

Tipping Sacred Cows or How We Unwittingly Turn Our Virtues Into Vices

Leadership
Tipping Sacred Cows by Jake Breeden is one of those bring-you-back-to-reality must-read books. It is about how we undermine ourselves and our organizations and get ourselves into comfortable ruts, by blindly following seemingly virtuous traits. It’s often about taking our strengths too far or misapplying them.

Our values give us life and direction on one hand, “and on the other hand can steal our energy, effectiveness, and success. Like rocks in a river channel, these unexamined values can get in our way, impede our efforts, and even capsize us,” writes Breeden.

Julian was given the reins of a company and immediately set about cutting waste and inefficiency—his core value. Profits temporarily rose but growth eventually stalled. He took the firm “from growing inefficiently to shrinking efficiently.” In an effort to be efficient, he ripped the heart out of the organizational culture. Breeden advises:
Julian Fletcher shouldn’t stop being efficient—he needs to start being more sophisticated. He needs to raise his game so he understands how efficiency can harmonize with other complementary leadership traits he needs to nourish.

When leaders embrace beliefs without understanding and managing the potential side effects, the beliefs become sacred cows and get in the way. When leaders shut off their brains and blindly follow the bromides of conventional wisdom they set off a string of unintended consequences.
Breeden tackles seven sacred cows:

Balance: “Balance operates through a constant stream of choices.” Balance is often thought to mean finding the middle ground. That’s not balance, that’s compromise. In order to find the middle ground, our choices “can too easily drift toward the middle in a cowardly compromise of nothingness. Balance backfires when it moves from being about bold, sometimes tough, choices to being about bland compromises.”

Collaboration: Collaboration should be accountable not automatic. “The default state of working should be alone; leaders should collaborate only when they must. Depending on your role, that may mean a significant part of your job requires collaboration. But ask yourself the question: does this work really need more than me?

Creativity: We all like creativity. It’s fun and exciting. But creativity needs to be useful and meet a real need or it’s just narcissistic creativity—creativity to serve our legacy. “Creativity should be pragmatic, not prideful.”

Excellence: Our pursuit of excellence “backfires when our high standards choke progress.” Forcing excellence on the process rather than the outcome.

One point I would add to Breeden’s section on excellence: excellence isn’t about doing everything perfectly. That’s perfectionism. We need to be careful not to confuse the two. Excellence is a way of thinking and includes making excellent mistakes, learning an excellent lesson and perhaps even going on to make a new and different mistake. If excellence is used as an excuse for indecision, avoiding all risk or unreasonable and immovable standards, it’s counterproductive. Excellence is a term that we sometimes throw around too loosely. It’s an excuse to cover perfectionism and/or controlling and self-centered behavior—my way or the highway.

Fairness: “Fairness backfires when some of our noblest instincts force us to ensure equitable outcomes rather than equitable processes.” Keeping score and evening the score to make sure no one gets more than their "fair share" often leads to regrets.

Passion: Bad passion crowds out everything else causing you to ruminate on one thing at the expense of others. Healthy passion is part of a diverse set of traits. Passion backfires when it becomes obsessive.

Preparation: The problem here is with too much backstage preparation. Preparation is critical but sometimes the best work is done in real-time—onstage preparation—learning while you are doing.

To make all of this very practical, Breeden provides in each chapter seven steps to: Make Your Balance Bold, Make Your Collaboration Accountable, Make Your Creativity Useful, Make Your Excellence Meaningful, Train Your Brain to Focus on Process Fairness, Make Your Passion More Harmonious, and seven ideas to Take Your Preparation to Center Stage. Very helpful material.

“Sometimes, without realizing it, we use our most reassured values as an excuse to avoid the discomfort of actually leading.” Organizational cultures and personal assumptions promote certain values. If these values are not examined from time to time in light of the overall purpose, then they can cause derailment or stagnation.

We can train ourselves “to avoid the waste that comes from the unintended consequences of unexamined conventional wisdom.” We can learn to lead with wisdom.

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Tipping Sacred Cows is an important book for anyone interested in applying virtues wisely. It provides understanding as to why things sometimes turn out so badly even though we did everything “right.”

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