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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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 7:11:47 AM
Re: Talk vs. Walk
I think it can be summed up saying that clichés aren't all bad and if you recognize that they are simplistic looks at human nature they can be used effectively.  It's amazing how motivated some people get from a seemingly simple catch phrase so why not use them if they work.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2014 | 9:04:47 PM
Re: Talk vs. Walk
@zaious    Good point, companies force cliches all the time and usually those that get the farthest up the ladder are able to recite these cliches and may actually believe them.  

Or at least fake it.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2014 | 9:01:21 PM
A Well placed Cliche can Do Wonders
Really interesting topic, that of cliches.   I agree while often trite, using the right one in the right moment can provide the momentum needed to  meet the challenge ahead. 

I champion originality but there are times when  well placed cliche will do the trick or at least help some.
zaious
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zaious,
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2014 | 7:03:15 PM
Re: Talk vs. Walk
There are some cliches that are woven in the culture of some companies. A 'careful' manager might still need to use it (he may not like it himself). 

And, to me, other aspects of human behavior are more vital than the use of cliches. I can stand the cliches from a manager I like.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
7/14/2014 | 4:49:09 PM
Re: Talk vs. Walk
It's much like a really good song that people get sick of because it's overplayed. IOW, "don't hate me because I'm overexposed"
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/14/2014 | 4:42:58 PM
Re: Talk vs. Walk
@laurieanne- Sure, cliche isn't going to save a bad leader. But I've followed good leaders my entire career and they all make much more use of cliche in their communications than they or anyone else would liek to admit.

At the heart of it, there's a reason a cliche is a cliche-- people repeat it so many times because of the inherent wisdom in it that we get tired of hearing it. It certainly seems like a bad idea to ask leaders to find new good ways to say the same thing or worse yet, ask them to say something wrogn just to avoid the cloche.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/14/2014 | 4:38:33 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
@Lorna- Ha! Good idea. I got a good one: "Our vision is to continue to proactively simplify business resources to allow us to endeavor to interactively recontextualise economically sound mindshare."

I believe i've worked at this company before. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/14/2014 | 4:36:21 PM
Re: Really?
@terryb- But "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" isn't the kind of cliche I'm praising. that's the example of a bad leadership cliche.

The type of cliche that MIGHT help in that situation is something like "we pride ourselves on the hard work of our employees" or "we are innovators." These are instructive to the mission and might help create the identity of your workers or influence your culture.

If you make your cliches central to your mission, people have something to fall back on.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
7/14/2014 | 4:22:40 PM
Re: In Praise Of...
I have seen worse than Avon. How about everyone jumps over to the Mission Statement Generator and takes their best shot? http://cmorse.org/missiongen/

 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
7/14/2014 | 3:26:34 PM
Talk vs. Walk
I have worked for polished talkers who were terrible walkers. Unless you back up your words with action, I won't respect you as a leader.

If your actions win my respect but you use the same phrase over and over -- you use a cliche even -- that is not a problem in my book. It may even become a joke between us.

 

 
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