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Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic delves into a favorite counter-intuitive concept: the benefits of lazy leadership. Buckle in and find out how industrious leaders are often not as successful to business results as we’d like to think!
One of my favorite leadership models is one based on the quote by General Kurt von Hammerstein- Equord:
“I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, [industrious]1, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and [industrious] — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they”…”are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and [industrious] — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”
I want to focus on the leadership aspect of this model and that means our focus will be on the Clever and Industrious (Leader 1) and the Clever and Lazy 2 (Leader 2). This model is a good example of one of the major dichotomies of leadership I continually experience and I’ll try to define this dichotomy through an analogy from my experience as an Army Officer:
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Envision yourself as a Platoon Leader charged with the objective of assaulting an entrenched enemy of superior forces. This enemy has a fortified position, intersecting lines of fire, barbed wire, tar pits, land mines, trenches, and booby traps between you and him. This is a serious challenge. Only the best leaders are up to the task. You have been chosen because you have proved yourself in the past and your team has been stacked with the best. (Sounds like any program, product, or factory in crisis doesn’t it?) Both have the same objective, the same resources available, same exact situation.
Leader 1 (Clever and Industrious) looks over the team, reviews the situation, raises their arm, and waves the Soldiers forward with a battle cry leading the way. Leader 1 is skilled, motivated, and leads by example. The team runs through the enemy fire, and they crawl through the minefield while using their bayonets to probe and clear a path, they are taking casualties but they strive on. They reach the barbed wire and cut and squirm through, they climb through mud up to their necks, and they throw hand grenades and find themselves in a knife fight in the trenches.
Leader 1 struggles on and leads the team to the base of the fortified position. As they assault the objective, the ensuing firefight is an epic akin to anything Quentin Tarantino imagines in his movies. Beyond all hope, beyond all expectations, this team perseveres and comes out the victor!
Leader 1 looks over the carnage, looks back, and assesses the casualties and capabilities. Leader 1 lost 85% of the force; the remaining 15% are combat ineffective, exhausted, out of ammo, and wounded. Leader 1 is bleeding, bruised, and exhausted but a hero, right? Look at what was just accomplished!
Leader 2 (Clever and Lazy) looks over the team, reviews the situation, picks up the radio, and makes a call:
“Hey Air Force, Do you want to blow some stuff up? Good, here are the coordinates”.
They make another call:
“Hey Artillery, Do you have any rounds available? Can I get creeping fire along my avenue of approach?”
They make a third call:
“Hey Combat Engineers, Are you busy with those armored dozers? How about the mine clearance? When would I be able to get those assets?”
After a tactical pause, the stage is set. The Artillery starts to suppress the enemy with precise fire, and the Air Force sends in a sortie and engages with bombs. The Combat Engineers clear the minefield and begin to reduce the obstacles. Leader 2 leads the troops in providing overwatch and security to the Engineers and securing the captured terrain. The team soon arrives at the base of the fortification and as they assault over the top they pause and scan the desolation resulting from the Air Force’s bombing runs.
Leader 2 sends out the platoon to secure the objective and round up the survivors. They look over the carnage, look back, and assess their capabilities and casualties. A report comes in that one Soldier is down with a twisted ankle from a nasty dozer rut and the rest look no worse for the wear after the 2-mile walk. ‘Lazy’ Leader 2 wipes a bead of sweat from their face and reports in for the next mission.
But the task was easy, right? Lazy Leader 2 didn’t do anything! Compare the effort to Leader 1!
This is the dichotomy. Many times we laud the behaviors of Leader 1 because of the perceived challenges. The issue is that promoting these behaviors promotes those types of leaders who expect the same and the cycle continues. Soon we have a culture where it is better to let problems smolder in order to have fires to fight than it is to eliminate the fuel and ensure success. Too many organizations have a Leader 1 culture.
Popular culture also supports these types. War movies like Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down epitomize and glorify this behavior. I remember, back in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), one of our cadre, who was in Mogadishu during the events of Black Hawk Down, had us Cadets watch that movie and then discuss it. The conversation was, to no surprise, about the heroism, the sacrifice, and the valiant gallantry. He stopped us after a while and told us we got it all wrong. He said the movie was all about failure and had us re-watch it to capture everything that went wrong as a learning opportunity.
Does that mean there wasn’t heroism? Not at all! But that heroism was required because there were too many Leader 1 types and not enough Lazy Leaders. This is where my eyes were first opened to this concept and I started to re-evaluate.
In project management, process improvements, change management, and lean transformations one of the largest failings is that they are too often implemented in a Leader 1 culture. This culture fails to look at the stability of processes, systemic corrective actions, and long-term improvement plans. It is easy to look around and see the mayhem created by a strong Leader 1 culture. It is even easier to see how much we reward that type of leadership.
For example, at a previous company, we were monitoring all of the ‘red’ crisis programs in manufacturing. Something struck me as odd about the lack of complexity that seemed to exist in these problematic programs. I sat down with a team and we developed a complexity score, based on the Green Circle, Blue Square, and Black Diamond approach to ski-hill difficulty.
We factored multiple variables from test positions to assembly steps, to first pass yield, and many more. When we applied this scoring to the factories what surprised everyone was that the worst performing programs weren’t the most difficult, in fact, they were most often blue square or less difficulty, being led by Leader 1s. Because when you reward firefighting, you invite arson. The irony of this measurement and finding was how quickly it was quashed and buried because the implications were too damning to those in charge.
So what are the benefits of Lazy Leaders and why should we take a hard look at our organizational and business culture? In simple terms, true Lazy Leaders know that the fastest way to fail is to think they can, or should do it by themselves. They delegate to the proper resources and hold accountability. They recognize it is easier to address performance issues early and align behaviors from the start. They realize that, while holding a person accountable may seem hard at the beginning, it makes the long-term culture easier. They utilize tools such as clear roles and responsibilities, solid planning, effective risk, and opportunity management, understanding the critical paths of executions, defining the decisions, not the tasks to be made, and establishing collaborative working relationships.
In this way, not running off to execute and spending the time upfront allows them to leverage all the available resources to ensure the most effective, and easy, execution. While these leaders are willing to lead the charge up the hill in the event of a crisis, they know that steady execution ensures higher efficiency and team unity vs. sprinting from problem to problem day after day and week after week.
A favorite quote of mine that captures this sentiment is attributed to Einstein3:
“If I were given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes coming up with solutions.”
This aligns with a similar concept from Daoism called Wu Wei. Aptly captured in the book Trying Not to Try, this concept ties in the mastery of skills with the art of intentional non-action. Sometimes doing nothing IS the right answer when doing something isn’t going to help. Doing nothing often seems lazy… and we should be OK with that! Especially when doing something doesn’t improve the situation.
How do we create a culture of Lazy Leaders? It isn’t easy. In fact, it is a problem that has been around for a very long time. General von Hammerstein wouldn’t have had to come up with his leadership model if he found only Lazy Leaders in leadership positions. The fundamental change is a shift in focus from short-term speedy solutions to the long-term stabilization of the process or program. It is also necessary to re-look at the leadership development programs at most large companies that culture young employees to differentiate themselves in their short-term assignments. This fosters Leader 1 mentalities without these budding leaders ever realizing the strategic consequences after they rotate on and up.
It requires leveraging a systems mindset to see the larger picture versus the myopic focus of discrete execution. Often, Lazy Leaders have polymathic tendencies to see across disciplines and, as our Leader 2 demonstrated, bring in other disciplines to reduce the problem set. A culture shift therefore also requires valuing the cross-disciplinary skillsets instead of the focused experts.
We have to stop rewarding firefighting cultures with quick fixes and develop cultures of true root cause and process control of the improvement. A new culture requires the flexibility to allow a Lazy Leader to execute and it requires the resources necessary to ensure success.
A very large challenge to overcome is that many leaders attained their position through Leader 1 execution. This means they have to re-calibrate their leadership style before they can foster a Lazy Leader culture and recognize the traits to hire. This takes a lot of effort in the short term but the long-term payoffs are massive.
Every organization needs to look hard at the culture they foster and the leadership development they create. If we look for and reward a Leader 1 type, we end up creating a culture of fires and chaos. If we look for and reward the ‘Lazy’ Leader 2 types, we benefit by creating a culture of efficiency, accountability, and steady execution.
The original quote has diligent which I have adjusted to today’s vernacular as industrious.
For the sake of this discussion, Lazy is used to break the paradigm that industriousness is the single, proper mode of execution. As you will see from the example lazy can be an efficient, networked, executer vs. a relentless and repetitive taskmaster. A ‘lazy’ leader finds the easiest path while recognizing that not following the proper procedures creates extra work in the long run. The irony is that the diligent or industrious leader often finds themselves violating more procedures and protocols in their effort to drive execution ‘at all costs’.
Throughout my writings, I find so many quotes that are claimed to be from a famous person are really barely attributable to them.