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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TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2014 | 1:25:13 PM
Really?
I don't know, David. If the servers all melt down or all the applications quit working, I'm not sure someone telling me "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" is going to help much. I think I would shove their tongue in the shredding machine.  :-)

I certainly agree mission statements are a joke. Replacing with a cliche wouldn't hurt much.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/14/2014 | 12:49:35 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
@Lorna- The whole fortune 500 is in need of one. They try to stuff their mission statements. Try this novel by Avon:

 

Avon's Mission


Avon's mission is focused on six core aspirations the company continually strives to achieve:
  • Leader in global beauty: Build a unique portfolio of beauty and related brands, striving to surpass competitors in quality, innovation, and value, and elevating Avon's image to become the world's most trusted beauty company. Learn more about Avon's brands.
  • Women's choice for buying: Become the shopping destination for women, providing a personal, high-touch experience that helps create lifelong customer relationships. Learn more about customer engagement at Avon.
  • Premier direct-selling company: Expand Avon's presence in direct selling, empowering women to achieve economic independence by offering a superior earnings opportunity as well as recognition, service and support, making it easy and rewarding to be affiliated with Avon. Learn more about how Avon empowers women.
  • Most admired company: Deliver superior returns to shareholders by pursuing new growth opportunities while maintaining a commitment to be a responsible, ethical company and a global corporate citizen that is held as a model of success. Learn more about recognition Avon has received.
  • Best place to work: Elevate the company's leadership, including its high standards, respect for diversity, and commitment to helping Associates achieve their highest potential in a positive work environment. Read about Associate engagement, workplace safety and diversity at Avon.
  • To have the largest foundation dedicated to women's causes: Be a committed global champion for the health and well-being of women through philanthropic efforts, with a focus on breast cancer, domestic violence and women's empowerment. Read more about Avon's global philanthropy.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
7/14/2014 | 12:38:54 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
Amen to that - Advance Auto is in desperate need of an editor.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/14/2014 | 12:35:53 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
@Lorna- Absolutely. Mission statements are for the most part terrible. They are do long. You can't remember 10 cliches packed into a mission statement. A mission statement I've heard pointed to as one of the best in the world is for Advance Auto Parts it reads:

"It is the Mission of Advance Auto Parts to provide personal vehicle owners and enthusiasts with the vehicle related products and knowledge that fulfill their wants and needs at the right price. Our friendly, knowledgeable and professional staff will help inspire, educate and problem-solve for our customers."

That is one of the shortest I've seen and it still seems too long to me. Personal vehicle owners? Vehicle related products and knowledge? Seriously?

What would be wrong with: "We will provide peope with the parts they need at the right price. Our staff friendly staff will provide expert knowledge and solve problems for our valued customers."

You know who might remember that? Employees, customers, even executives. You know who would remember the first? No one.
jastro
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jastro,
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2014 | 12:33:41 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
@dave

 

It is what it is.

 

get it?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/14/2014 | 12:26:49 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
"It is what it is" is quite powerful. I also am fond of "It is all good."

I think there's real power in accepting instead of griping. Of course, there is even more power in fixing, but sometimes we can't do that for various reasons. 

But here's a question: "It is what it is" isn't really mission-specific is it? I mean, it doesn't grow the company or point the company in a certain direction. It simply encourages the team to accept certain realities. 

Does that mean we should accept a second category of cliches (call them "standing orders" maybe?)? Or does it mean you and i are being long term destructive to the people we are using our cliches on because we're not encouraging people to change the status quo?
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2014 | 12:18:55 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
Cliches are much before because everyone understands the message.  Think about someone taking one hour to explain the mission of the organization. I'm sure not all people will be able to keep their full attention all the way to the end. A one line message with a simple idea is something that everyone can follow.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
7/14/2014 | 11:21:46 AM
Re: In Praise Of...
I'll take a pithy cliche any day over "mission statements" or other communiques that take hundreds of words to say exactly nothing. I just read a long press release that conveyed zero hard information and mentioned to a colleague that I was in awe of the writer's ability to speak in BS.
jastro
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jastro,
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2014 | 10:50:14 AM
In Praise Of...
>> I maintain that leadership clichés are necessary and powerful.

Yep

>> 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.


After working for many large companies, I think I've settled on this advice to my team: "It is what it is"

not sure it's a cliche, but it seems to work
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