Friday, November 12, 2010

What’s Leadership Success: Inspiring Performance or Driving Results?

This morning, like many others, I started my day by scanning through my email newsletters.  I am a loyal follower and big fan of the “Smart Brief on Leadership” newsletter series.  Usually I encounter really valuable and helpful insights there.

One of the current issue’s links, “Make sure your company doesn’t have any “talented” people” certainly caught my attention. Out of curiosity I clicked on it and encountered a blog article entitled “Six Ways Leaders Can Fuel Excellence at Anything.”  The author, Tony Schwartz, presents six keys for leaders to most effectively inspire and nurture excellence.

Overall I believe there are some excellent thoughts expressed in this article.  However, Tony’s first key (bullet point) troubles me.  In my opinion it reeks of  “old school” management tactics, utilized within a controlling business culture.  You know what I mean… the “be good, but not too good to employees because they will slack off”  routine.

Ban words like “talented,” “gifted,” and “special” from your vocabulary. Well meaning as these words may be, they tend to give people credit for something they did nothing to earn, while also suggesting that others don’t have equal potential. Consider replacing these words with ones like “effective,” “determined,” “accomplished,” “skilled,” “persevering,” and “masterful,” all of which give due credit to effort.” — Tony Schwartz

So what is your opinion?  Do you believe this crafted approach to communications is appropriate?  I’m not comfortable with the message it sends.

Take a moment and consider these questions:

Is it ok to tell someone they are talented or gifted? I think it is.

Will your company be a failure if you tell an employee they are special? A staff member who becomes more engaged as a result of feeling appreciated will positively impact a company’s performance, not detract from it.

If an employee has a special talent or gift, must they always earn their way to appreciation through some actions, or “effort,” or is it acceptable to occasionally appreciate them for who they are? Isn’t it human nature, even for managers, to express appreciation to fellow team members as part of the personal interaction process?

Do people have to work harder to receive praise from their organization?  What about if they work smarter, not harder? I believe it’s about business results, not about which road you take to get there.

I am absolutely in favor of  giving due credit to team members for their hard work and effort.  That is really important!  But… Leaders must openly acknowledge and embrace their staff’s talents and positive attributes as well.

Where’s the Transparency?

A strong leader should seek to understand each staff member’s individual value and contribution to the team.  Leaders spark positive energy, motivation and individual personal growth, within their work-groups, by frequently sharing open,  honest, constructive feedback with everyone regarding their strengths and weaknesses.  To replace an openly honest opinion, of a person’s perceived value to an organization, with a carefully crafted statement, designed to drive certain behaviors, is manipulative, and untrustworthy.

Effective Leader or Spin Doctor?

Supposed “Leaders” who are politically correct in everything they say and do, especially with their teams, quickly earn a reputation within the business community, as being self-serving.  In fact, they aren’t leaders at all, they are posers.

These spin doctors are more concerned about how their message will be perceived than by what the message is itself.  They avoid risk by hiding behind carefully crafted statements, as opposed to being transparent with their opinions and feedback towards other people.  That is sad.

Please share your feedback!  What do you think is the ideal approach to leading a team to success?  What, if anything,  in this blog post, makes sense to you?  What have I left out?  I look forward to your comments!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Hurt November 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Great post and provocative question. I’ve struggled with similar issues.

Author and cognitive therapist (neuroscientist) Daniel Willingham says that we have done a disservice to people by calling them smart, intelligent and gifted. He says that intelligence can be improved through hard work and is under each individual’s control.

Willingham suggests that people praise effort (when appropriate), not ability. He also encourages people to treat failure as a natural part of learning. He says that when we single out people that succeed we discount others that are learning through failure. He says that our praise demeans failure and causes people to fear it. He says if you want to increase intelligence, you must challenge yourself which will require learning and unexpected failures. If we always applaud the gifted, talented and intelligent, people stop challenging themselves and play it safe with sure wins.

I’ve been thinking about this for months and it is starting to make sense to me.


Michael M McCurry CMP November 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Hey Jeff,

Wow, that was a great perspective to share… thanks for that.

My biggest struggle with all this is that it feels so artificial and rehearsed. To me offering praise and encouragement is a natural part of being a human being, when it is sincere.

I guess I am going to think a lot more about this. I am really curious to see what others think about this subject.

I definitely agree that in order to grow we must challenge ourselves and encounter unexpected failure. I think a word you used that resonates with me is the word “always” because if we give out too much praise without any growth advice, then people do become too comfortable with their own success.

Thanks for contributing, Jeff, to the discussion.



Dave Lutz November 13, 2010 at 6:09 am

Mike, when I saw the title of your post, I was thinking CRAP! McCurry wrote a post that I need to disagree with. But after reading your post, I’m with you all the way. Leadership is both about inspiring performance and driving results. They go hand and hand. They will only be sustained through authenticity.

There are people that get their highs from public praise and those that really get juiced when praised in private. I’ve always been one that prefers the latter. When someone looks me in the eyes and speak from the heart, I know it’s all real. It motivates me to deliver the goods. For the people that prefer public recognition or praise, I think that’s cool. But, I think if the leader doesn’t take the private opportunity too, they may not get the sustained performance and results.

The choice of words is BS. It needs to be real, from the heart and believable. That’s it. Simple stuff.


Michael M McCurry CMP November 13, 2010 at 8:43 am

Hi Dave,

You and I are absolutely on the same page with this one. We know each other pretty well after 25 years (damn we are old) and it really troubles me to hear people say you can’t let your human side show in a leadership setting.

Steve Farber, Extreme leadership guru believes that the best leaders embrace Love (of things and people) in everything they do.

Thanks for contributing Dave, it is much appreciated.



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