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I'll take a large slice of pepperoni - and a definition, please

Defining trendy terms is easier said than done...even over a pizza lunch
Defining trendy terms is easier said than done...even over a pizza lunch

One of the great things I’ve always enjoyed about psychological research is the ability to study a certain aspect of human behavior while “subjects” are engaged in the performance of seemingly unrelated tasks.  So when I attended a recent Executive Management seminar focused on leadership coaching, I couldn’t help myself when an unintended – and rather passionate – debate erupted during lunch over a rather benign topic: the definition of the word “Leadership.”

Now, bear in mind that this topic is even more interesting to me since I was the one who frequented the Principal’s office because when told to “be quiet” by my teachers, I responded with “could you please provide the definition of quiet?”  To commemorate my smart-alecky quest for clear direction, my parents recently gave me a holiday ornament.  On it was a depiction of Santa Clause holding a note sent to him presumably from a young boy.  The young boy who scribed the note reminded my parents of me.  The note simply read, “Define Good.”

So, three hours into the seminar’s first day, our instructor announced that lunch had been delivered and was waiting outside…and we had but one task to complete between bites of luke-warm delivery pizza and not-so-cold grocery store soda: come to a consensus on the definition of the word Leadership. 

To understand the depth and breadth of the ensuing debate one must understand the makeup of the participants in the room.  These included - almost exclusively - corporate executives from varying industries and company sizes, but each oozing the same Type A confidence one would expect from those housed in the C-suite.  In focus for each was a simple task: define, in objective form, a well-worn word that’s tossed around as much as a football in a Mike Leach coached offense. We all know what it means, right?  Heck, everybody knows what it means, right? Apparently, no and no, in this case. 

And so it began…the bickering…the bargaining...and then back to the bickering.  An ultra-analytical CFO in the room began breaking down the definition by keyword.  As fascinating as his process seemed, and as fun as it was to follow, it got the group nowhere.  With agreed-to keywords thrown in a quasi-sensible arrangement, the definition made little sense.  Once again bickering ensued, followed by bargaining and then, finally, with the aid of our much-amused instructor, a compromise on the definition.

The final rendition?  Leadership, said the class, “is the ability to get others to want to do what you need to have done.”

Judging from body language and facial expressions, I could tell that the above definition was – at best – an unhappy medium for most.  At this point in the day, though, our instructor revealed his secret:  the exercise was not about finding the definition to the word “Leadership”, but, rather, an evaluation of the process and styles of compromise.  In attempting to define an ambiguous word like Leadership, he said, we had uncovered and brought forth each of our particular styles of filibustering, bargaining and compromise.  It was certainly a novel way to get at these important individual traits and nearly all of us were relieved that our definition would not be published in some post-session white paper.

But for me, there was an even greater message…one that not a single participant, not even our instructor, picked-up on during the exercise – the enormity of our inability to easily and consistently define an oft-used word like “Leadership.”

As business professionals, we’re surrounded by similar words in nearly every corner of our organization.  Words like “Character”, “Integrity”, “Leadership”, “Teamwork”, “Innovation”, “Trust”, and my favorite “the best” permeate the Mission Statements we produce and hang on our walls, glow in the brilliant light of our ever-engaging websites and pop cleanly on our marketing collateral.  But what do these words, and a mountain of similar ones, really mean?  And, perhaps more importantly, how are they interpreted by those key stakeholders of our businesses?

To attempt to get at these answers, we’d likely need a lot more pizza and several more days of bickering and bargaining.  But the fact is, these words sound good.  They look good.  And trying to forge ahead with the development of a corporate culture without them would, perhaps, be too, well, too plain?  Too simplistic?

But simplicity can be a very good thing. Take a moment and go back and read the class’ definition of Leadership.  Awe inspiring it is not.  There are no Fuqua Business School terms floating between the first capital letter and the last period.  It certainly would not make the cut for inclusion in a galvanizing political speech.  But even with its potential flaws it is direct, understandable and clear in what we as leaders seek.   

And as leaders, we should focus on giving clear and distinct direction for those stakeholders of our organization at every possible opportunity.  Sure, saying “tell the truth” may not sound as noble as “act with integrity”, for example, but from a stakeholder’s standpoint, which makes more sense, is more direct and less likely to be left open to individual interpretation? 

Let’s all take the time to look around at the corporate culture messaging we’re promoting.  At the end of the day, we should all be analyzing what the desired results look like from each of us and work our way backward to clearly defining the behaviors that support those desired results.  Doing so makes our jobs easier…and our pizza lunches much more enjoyable.