Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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7/14/2014
10:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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In Praise Of Clichés

Sometimes leaders say obvious things just because they think it's expected of them, and I'm totally OK with that approach.

I wrote last week about the lack of good leadership definitions, although I identified one that provides a starting point (more on that later). Although we don't all agree on what makes a great leader, most of us agree on what he or she isn't: a font of clichés. Clichés are lazy, they lack authenticity, and no "real" leader would resort to one, right?

Wrong.

With all due respect to those lists of management clichés to avoid, I maintain that leadership clichés are necessary and powerful. Despite what you read in leadership books about the need to be authentic and "real," it isn't the cliché itself that's bad. As with any tool, it's how you use it. Let's look at clichés in action.

It's that crazy time of year in the NFL, when teams have new coaches and players practicing together for the first time, in minicamps. Optimism flows through these camps, and the coaches, who are supposedly great leaders, spout a lot of clichés. My favorite one comes from just about every defensive coach: "We're going to be a lot more aggressive this year." If you don't believe me, check out here and here and take a walk through Google.

[Want more leadership tips? Read Retention Strategy: Treat Everyone As An Individual.]

Obviously, this is a cliché, because you're never going to hear a football coach say, "I'd like for us to be much more passive this year. I'd like the other team to dictate to us, and we'll react and hope we know how to stop it." There's also a limit to intelligent aggression in any sport. You could send all your guys in a mad rush to stop the other team, and it will simply avoid your disorganized barbarian charge. So what's the point of the cliché?

The point is that the team is listening. And not shockingly, they respond.

Consider the definition of leadership I offered in last week's column, from Steve Zeitchik, CEO of Focal Point Strategies: "Leadership is inspiring others to pursue your vision within the parameters you set, to the extent that it becomes a shared effort, a shared vision, and a shared success."

Shared vision is the key concept. A shared vision requires clear, simple communication so that everyone understands it. Clichés offer the chance to do something rare: Convey an idea we all understand but need to re-emphasize.

When the coach says "we're going to be more aggressive" or an executive says "we're going to empower you to innovate," those are clichés that seem easy to dismiss. But effective leaders choose clichés such as those over the truly vacuous clichés such as "we're going to take it one game at a time.”

Pick your clichés carefully. Make sure they're at the heart of your vision. Especially when all heck is breaking loose, your people can fall back on clichés, best-practices, mission statements, and other repeated messages that they might otherwise dismiss.

To keep the sports analogy alive, when it's fourth and goal and your defense needs to make a stand to win the game, it reaches back to what it knows. What it knows is that you're going to be aggressive. Each defender is going to dig his heels in and go after the ball like a wild dog.

When your team's up against your organization's own goals, your team will know your priorities and vision and act accordingly. What do you think? To cliché or not to cliché? Authentic or lazy? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Here's a step-by-step plan to mesh IT goals with business and customer objectives and, critically, measure your initiatives to ensure that the business is successful. Get the How To Tie Tech Innovation To Business Strategy report today (registration required).

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2014 | 1:54:52 PM
I'll take a cliche, but No buzzword bingo
It's one thing to have a mission statement that may spout simialar things all companies want. (to serve their customers better, to have products to be proud of etc.) but when we are in a meeting I don't want to play buzzword bingo as my boss is speaking either. don't tell me you want to (fill in buzzword here), tell me how you want us to do it so we are doing it better/faster/cheaper than the competition.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
7/21/2014 | 3:58:41 PM
Re: Only resort to cliches....until the cows come home
From what I can tell, cliches are cliches when used correctly for their common definition. When they are used incorrectly, they are simply mistakes. When used correctly, they are used because they are easy and vague --- and vagueness is prized by leaders without clear strategic vision. When they are used incorrectly, they muddle the situation even worse because no one knows what the heck you mean.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 12:51:22 PM
Re: Only resort to cliches....until the cows come home
@Charles- that's an interesting comment. You are basically saying a cliche is cliche based on its use as opposed to its commonality. So a "stitch in time saves nine" is only a cliche when misused? Intellectually, I'm intrigued by this concept. It explains why coaches get away with "we're goign to be more aggressive" every football season and it explains why cliches work at times. 

On the other hand, it makes them frighteningly difficult for managers to learn when to use them then. Oh well, i guess that is the manager's problem.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 12:46:11 PM
Re: In Praise Of Cliches
@angelfuego- That's an exccellent example of the good and the bad use of cliches. I think one lesson we can learn here is that the good cliche "propoer planning prevents poor performance" actually provides advice on what to do. the bad cliche sounds basically like the manager is out of ideas and wants you to go away before you realize it.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 12:43:45 PM
Re: In Praise Of Cliches
@zerox203- I guess we have to rely on another cliche-- everything in moderation. :)

Seriously though, your very thoughtful comment points out the troubles of all management writing. As much as you want to teach it, you can't do it directly. There is no single method of management which would work for all managers in all situations. There are no step-by-step instructions.

The best I think any writer can do is propose a set of ideas knowing that some small percentage of them will resonate with any given individual. And the best a manager can do is read a bunch of articles and figure out which ones resonate with them.

I look at management advice like clubs in a golf bag. Some of them you use a lot. Some of them you only use when you are stuck behind the tree in a puddle. The best any of us can do is list all the potential clubs so a manager can decide what to stick into his bag. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 12:36:57 PM
Re: Talk vs. Walk
@SaneIT- You're right. I should have used the term "catch phrase." Anyone who writes for sitcoms knows the power of a catchphrase. You never want your staff to say, "Whachya talkin' about, CIO?" :)
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
7/18/2014 | 6:57:17 PM
Only resort to cliches....until the cows come home
"Choose your cliches carefully." A cliche is not a cliche when it can be used to sum up your group's new reality, some situation that it's struggling to understand and the cliche acts an interpreter of events that all can relate to. Then again, I've heard plenty of would-be leaders mindlessly resort to cliches 24X7 until the cows come home.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
7/17/2014 | 6:28:00 PM
Re: In Praise Of Cliches
@David, Re:" Shared vision is the key concept. A shared vision requires clear, simple communication so that everyone understands it. Clichés offer the chance to do something rare: Convey an idea we all understand but need to re-emphasize." I agree. Cliches that are repeated enough can help everyone get the clear vision. In a sense, cliches can become mantras. However, I think the cliches need to be thoughtful and not just some useless jargon. One of my bosses used to always tell us "Proper planning prevents poor performance." This rang a bell for me and I hear myself using the same cliche years later at a different job. I had another job and remember that I used to get frustrated by receiving an outrageous assignment followed by "Make it happen." This boss would have unrealistic expectations, demands, and deadlines and that was his famous cliche. If anyone would explain why it would not be quite possible or would try to explain barriers that prevent meeting the deadline, he would say, "Make it happen." That was frustrating, but we always knew what was expected.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
7/17/2014 | 6:12:14 PM
Re: In Praise Of Cliches
@David, Re: "Pick your clichés carefully. Make sure they're at the heart of your vision." I think that is true. Our words are powerful and should be chosen carefully. I think sometimes we can speak things into existence, especially when it comes to saying our statements and cliches frequently.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 2:33:10 PM
Re: In Praise Of Cliches
It feels likes this is a topic that makes the rounds pretty frequently - although I did get a chuckle out of the linked Forbes article. Is talking about cliches a cliche? The world may never know. Like the cliches themselves, though, there's a reason for that - If we do something (or hear something) enough, we want to take a closer look at it and see why we do it (this is true for everything from business practices to accidentally touching a hot oven). Any  lazy analysis that paints cliches as completely good or bad (of which there are plenty) invite a good analysis like this one that weighs the good with the bad.

Cliches have become mainstays for a reason, but unfortunately that defense in itself invite their overuse and misuse. For example, you should use a simple cliche to get a message across quickly and easily, but you shouldn't use it when something more specific is just as good - don't say 'we need you to think outside the box' when what you meant is 'we can't afford your current idea for X specific reason'. Nevertheless, we all know managers who have been seduced by the dark side of cliches... but we also know their evil cousin, the 'modern' manager. The guy who goes out of his way not to use cliches, talk like a regulary guy, and make sure it doesn't sound like he went to business school. While that's all well and good, we all know that he's equally as likely to be a lousy manager.
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