Ideological Necrophilia

“Ideological necrophilia – a love of ideas that have been tried and proved not to work.” Moises Naim (Venezuelan writer and journalist)

In the political world, we see ideological necrophilia in a continued love of Marxism and communism by the left and tax incentives and enterprise zones as a way to help the poor on the right.  Both ideas have been tried repeatedly and, despite their continued popularity, have never worked.

In business, we see such necrophilia in ideas and concepts that are quite popular but have failed again and again and again.  Below, I have put together a few strong candidates for ideological necrophilia in business:

  • A good talker will make a good salesperson.  Yes, salespeople need to be outgoing and unafraid of rejection.  However, salespeople that are good talkers usually can never shut up and annoy and/or bore their customers.  A better idea: a good listener will make a good salesperson.
  • We need to grow now, and the profits will come later.  This has been the cry of countless fast-growing companies.  Still, this idea nearly always fails.  Yes, Amazon is making profits after years of growth and losses.  But, our owners, Boards of Directors, and bankers are unlikely to have the patience to wait the 6 years it took Amazon to make a yearly profit.
  • More is better. More features, more choice, more complexity, more people.  In nearly all cases, more makes things more difficult, more confusing, and harder to manage.  The better adage is as my previous boss used to say, “it is not what you add to a situation that makes a difference; it is what you take away.”  Less is more.
  • We need to treat everyone equally.  This seductive idea of equality sounds great.  But it damages organizations.  Top performers leave; poor performers stay – the opposite of what we want for our companies.  We need to treat everyone fairly; not equally.
  • My top performers don’t need to be managed.  We all need to be managed and coached, top performer or not.  Without management or oversight, top performers can often go outside their guardrails and inflict damages on companies.  Without being mentored or coached, top performers will stagnate and will not develop and improve their skills and performance.  While we may manage our top performers with a lighter touch, we still need to manage and coach them.
  • It is not the situation; it is the person. Whether it is a performance issue or an ethical issue, we often attribute the thoughts and actions to the individual.  Years of social psychology research prove that, while the person matters, the situation that person is put in matters equally.  A top performer put into a no-win situation will under-perform; a highly ethical person put into an undefined and ethically vague situation may push the ethical boundaries. In short, we need to ensure that we create a culture and situations that allow average and excellent performers to succeed ethically.

So What?

The point of highlighting these candidates for ideological necrophilia is for us, as leaders, to recognize these seductive, yet mistaken ideas and realize that they will fail no matter what we do. So, let’s avoid them.

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Be Kind

One of our team asked their supervisor (a valued senior manager in our company) whether the supervisor had read an E-Mail that was sent.  In front of a group of ten people, the supervisor responded: “I have seen that you sent me an E-Mail; I have not read the E-Mail.  I have a lot of priorities and your E-Mail is not my top priority.  I will get back to you when your E-Mail gets to the top of my priority list…”

Time for a little coaching with this supervisor. Despite what we often see on television, leaders should never be this inconsiderate.  As leaders, we need to always be kind.

Why Do We Always Need to Be Kind:

  • The power of our position: as leaders in a hierarchy, we have control over the lives and well-being of our employees.  Hence, everything that we say or do, good or bad, is magnified in the eyes of our employees.
  • The overwhelming power of negativity: In countless social psychology studies, it has been shown that one negative comment has 4 – 5 times the power of a positive comment.  Thus, we should be especially careful about negative or unkind comments.
  • There is never a time to be unkind.  Firm discussions and discipline should be focused on improving the employee and always need to be done with empathy, kindness and consideration.

“Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”  Dalai Lama

Some Ways to Ensure That We Are Always Kind:

  • Realize that we are blessed: As leaders we are in an advantageous position, usually well-paid and doing a job that we enjoy. In short, we should be grateful for what we have.  If we still cannot be kind and considerate in such a situation, then we may not have the moral stock to be a leader.
  • Consider that our employees are usually facing their own challenges and difficulties.  They certainly do not need another unkind comment or action from their boss.  As Plato is reported to have said:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

  • Keep our egos in check. Wayne Dyer puts it well:

“In the battle to be right or kind, choose kind; it’s closer to your values and the values of others.”

  • Remember to take a moment to respond, especially when upset or angry.  As leaders and people, we should never instinctively react.  A measured response is far better than a quick-trigger reaction.
  • Take care of ourselves and our families:  It is easier to be kind to others when we are healthy and doing well in our own personal lives.  Even when we don’t feel great, however, we need to have on our leadership game face and be positive and kind.
  • Realize the advantages of kindness.  Being kind makes us happier and builds winning teamwork.

“Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”  Martin Seligman (Positive Psychologist)


“It is rather embarrassing to have given one’s life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than: ‘Try to be a little kinder.’” Aldous Huxley (British Author of Brave New World)

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Skin in the Game

In a previous job, I had around 100 salespeople who reported either directly or indirectly to me.  As a group, they were strong in sales.  But they lagged in paperwork, especially sales reporting and expense reports, and in doing any kind of mathematical cost-benefit analysis for their customers. However, when it came to their commissions (we had a complex commission program), they were mathematical geniuses knowing the effect of what each sale would mean for their commissions.

This anecdote illustrates well the importance of having “skin in the game.”  When these salespeople had skin in the game – their commissions – they understood everything.  Having skin in the game focuses our mind and attention to the matter and significantly improves understanding, accountability, and performance.

As leaders, we need to ensure that we have ‘skin in the game’ especially regarding any rules, policies and procedures that we may introduce in our company.  We need to be equally accountable and responsible for following our own policies and procedures.  What is good for our team needs to be equally good for us.  Similarly, if we ask someone in our company to take a risk, we need to take a risk right along with him or her.

Nassim Taleb is the author of the book, Skin in the Game.  The main idea of the book is that too many business and political leaders make laws and procedures where they do not have skin in the game.  There is no accountability and the leaders do not need to follow their own rules.  This leads to unfair and overly complex laws and procedures.  A few examples in business that I have seen:

  • Complex expense tracking and reporting systems that the top executives don’t need to follow because their administrative assistants do it for them.
  • Overly complex policies that people in the organization are required to follow, but not the leaders.

“Things designed by people without skin in the game tend to grow in complication (before their final collapse).”  Nassim Taleb

  • Risky initiatives assigned to a young leader that can make or break his or her career where the boss has no risk and will suffer no ill effects if the initiative fails.
  • Advice from a financial advisor to invest in something her or she is not invested in him or herself.
  • Reports from consultants who are paid for the reports not for the success or failure of their recommendations.
  • Unequal pay structures where top management are insulated from performance risk due to the size of their base salaries.

When leaders do not have skin in the game, they do not understand the challenges and struggles of their team, they make things more difficult for their team, they are respected less, and their companies underperform.

The final thought goes to Nassim Taleb.

“Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game.”

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The Challenge of Being Ethical

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Groucho Marx

“There’s one way to find out if a man is honest – ask him. If he says, ‘Yes’, you know he is a crook.  Groucho Marx

As Groucho Marx humorously touches on, we all want to be honest and to be considered honest and ethical.  In business and in life, this can be a challenge.

Ethical Challenges and Pitfalls

Bounded Ethicality: People often act unethically without even being aware that they are being unethical.  This often happens in heat of the moment when decisions are made under stress.  We then compound the issue by justifying to our ourselves why we behaved as we behaved.  Once we have justified that to ourselves in our own minds, we do not consider the behavior to be unethical.

Blind Eyes: As Max Bazerman writes in his excellent book, Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It, if we are motivated to turn a blind eye to unethical behavior (we gain something from the unethical behavior) then we often will not see the behavior.

“A core finding of behavioral ethics: that people who have a vested self-interest in a situation have difficulty approaching the situation without bias, even when they view themselves as honest.”  Max Bazerman

Judging Behavior: We all too often judge behavior not by the ethicality of the decision; but by the result.  As such, a behavior that is done with unethical intentions that turns out fine will be judged far better than a behavior that is done with the best of intentions that turns out poorly.  In short, we judge others and how ethical they are by their actions.

Our Ethical Example: While we judge others by their actions, we judge ourselves by our intentions.  The leadership challenge is that we may do something with the best of intentions, but our action is perceived by others as unethical or unfair, either because the action in and of itself is judged to be unethical or (as above) the result turns out to be unethical.

The Conflict of Interest Paradox:  It has repeatedly being shown (both in social psychological experiments and in surveying real-life examples) that when individuals disclose a conflict of interest, it gives them a license to engage in further immoral behavior.  As an example, doctors who disclose conflicts of interest (being paid by companies to do research, etc.) are more likely to exaggerate or engage in biased behavior than doctors who are being paid by companies to do research, but who do not disclose this fact.

What Then Must Be Done?

For each of us to be more ethical leaders, we need to first understand these ethical pitfalls and consider them in our decision making.  A short list of actions that we can do to be more ethical leaders:

  • In preparing for a stressful situation or meeting, pre-commit to our intended ethical course of action and set limits on our behavior by sharing it with other people beforehand.
  • Realize when we have a self-interest and fight hard to not let this self-interest affect our decisions or actions.  For one example, we need to evaluate unexpected good fortune.  As it were, we need to look gift horses in the mouth.
  • As in decision making in general, we need to evaluate decisions and behaviors by the process and quality of the decision-making, not by the result.
  • We need to understand how our decisions and actions are perceived.  Most importantly, we need to explain the “why” behind our decisions and actions so that others may understand the ethical basis of our behavior even if the decision or action turns out poorly.

Finally, we need to ethic proof our companies:

  • Vet our employees.  Hire good, honest people and push to expel unethical people even when they are high performers or are performing a job that is vital to the company.
  • Do not overwhelm our companies with countless and complex rules and procedures.  Instead, have fewer, but always clear cut, policies and procedures that allow for little ambiguity in their interpretation.  Among the deadliest enemies of ethical behavior are bad policies and procedures.
  • Ensure that we emphasize that we value being ethical over just following the law.  Can we have all the decisions in our company be such that we would not be upset if the details of the decision were published on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?
  • Trust but Verify.  We still need to have the controls in place to spot unethical and illegal behavior when it first starts.  We need to oversee the behaviors of all of our employees and we need it to be known that we are overseeing their behaviors.

Best of luck to all of us to be more ethical leaders today, tomorrow and every day.

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Rough Seas Ahead?

Economists, politicians, and many business leaders are predicting a recession in 2023 as the Federal Reserve continues to tighten to lower inflation and inflationary expectations.

Alas, I have no insight on whether an economic downturn will come to pass.  I do know that this is a great time to build resilience into our organization and our people that will help our businesses to withstand any downturn and profit from any upswing.

Simplify and Focus

Whether a recession is coming or not, now is the best time to simplify and focus our business on what is most important.  In good times, we all accumulate excess processes and people which create more work and more people.  It is a good time to cut through all that and to simplify.  Most importantly, we need to ask ourselves: what are we doing that we do not need to do anymore?

Tighten Up the Crew

With the excess processes and people, we have accumulated some poor performers.  The prospect of a downturn gives us the opportunity to lay off (with respect) poor performers due to “lack of work.”  This strengthens the team where good performers are probably already doing double duty to cover for and correct the mistakes of the poor performers.

Recommit to Our Good People

Along with the need to tighten up the crew, we need to re-commit to our good people continuing to provide and support them and to assure them of their strong future with our company.  In rough seas, we all want to tighten our belts and watch costs closely.  But, we still need to celebrate our good people and ensure that we keep our business as a great place to work.

Recommunicate the Vision and the Mission

To recommit to our good people, we need to get out to our team (one on one, in small groups, and in larger townhall settings) and recommunicate our vision, our mission, and our strong future together -rough seas be damned

Be Opportunistic

With a simplified and focus business and our great people, now may be the time to be opportunistic: to enter a new business or product line, to invest, to find good people from the competition, to seek out the right acquisitions.  Warren Buffet is quoted as saying:

Be fearful when everyone else is greedy and greedy when everyone else is fearful.

Likewise, we need to be opportunistic when everyone else is re-trenching.


With a strong vision and mission and a great crew, we will surmount any upcoming rough seas. 

Full speed ahead!!

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Evolution and Change in Business

Looking at our businesses within the context of evolution can give us actionable insights to help move our businesses forward. 

Despite what we may have read or heard; evolution is not about a dog-eat-dog world where only the strongest individuals survive.  A quick tutorial on some key concepts in evolution:

  • Survival of the Fittest: Please note that it is not ‘survival of the strongest or toughest’.  Instead, it means survival of those who are most able to prosper in the current environment.  Importantly, if the environment changes the criteria for being the fittest changes. 
  • Group Evolution: Although evolution plays itself out through each individual who either survives or does not survive until he or she can reproduce, evolution is not just an individual attribute.  Evolution is also a group attribute.  Indeed, much of the success of homo sapiens and our other ancestors came from working together as a group, clan or faction to enable the individuals within the group, clan or faction to survive. 

Human evolution is not just the story of individuals competing with other individuals within each group; it’s also the story of groups competing with other groups.  Greg Lukianoff

  • Punctuated Equilibrium: As pioneered by Steven Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, evolution does not take place at a consistent pace.  There are long periods of dull stability punctuated by periods of swift change usually determined by significant changes in the external environment.
  • Evolution is Inevitable: Over the medium to long term evolution will triumph.  Those who do not adapt will over time diminish and become less relevant.  As Leslie Orgel writes, “evolution is cleverer than you are.”

With that quick tutorial finished, let’s discuss how thinking in terms of evolution can help us improve our business.

  • The external environment is and will always be changing.  Thus, we, as individuals, need to always be learning, adapting, and changing our behavior to fit the changing world.  Similarly, companies need to be changing.  The beginning of the end for many companies is when the world outside the company is changing more rapidly than the world inside the company.  Such companies are often perfectly fit for a world that no longer exists.
  • But, as with the idea of punctuated equilibrium, we need to be mindful of when we should evolve slowly and when we should change dramatically.  Constant dramatic change will leave our companies in turmoil and may make our companies perfectly fit for a world that does not yet exist.
  • Evolution occurs from the bottom; it starts with the individual or the individual group.  For our companies, evolution needs to begin on the front lines with our customer facing employees (sales, services, operations) who will be the first to know that the world is changing.

“For too long we have underestimated the power of spontaneous, organic and constructive change driven from below, in our obsession with designing change from above. Embrace the general theory of evolution.  Admit that everything evolves.”  Matt Ridley

  • Our companies are groups.  For us to remain fit, our whole company needs to remain fit.  In short, a collection of individuals no matter how good and fit for today’s environment will always lose out to a team that comes together to learn and make the company good and fit for today’s environment.  A team of superstars will nearly always lose to a superstar team.
  • Change and improvement is not enough.  We need to adapt and improve more rapidly than others.  If not, we will fall behind and eventually become extinct.
  • The individuals and companies that have been and remain successful are not necessarily smarter, stronger, or ‘better.’  They just have done a better job of continuously fitting themselves to the environment in which they exist.  

In short, harnessing the power of evolution will help move our companies forward.

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Let’s Be Scientific

As leaders, we are required to constantly evaluate evidence and make decisions.  In doing so, we often succumb to “winging it” and making decisions on the fly, trusting our gut.  While this might work for some decisions, it does not work for long term success.

Instead, we need to be scientific in our analysis of data and in our decision making.  Below, I offer some general guidelines on how we can all be more scientific in our daily leadership activities.

Know the Difference Between a Belief and Science: The easy way to differentiate the two is that if something cannot be disproved, it is not science. We see this most often in people’s ideology and viewpoint when we ask the question: what would it take for you to change your mind?  Without a good, open-minded answer to this question, you are dealing with a person’s beliefs.  As someone’s beliefs are strongly influenced by confirmation bias and are difficult to change, we need to avoid making a decision based on beliefs.

Use the Scientific Method: When doing data analysis, we must always begin with a hypothesis and see if our data proves or disproves that hypothesis.  When we look at data and then try to create a hypothesis after the fact, we are usually hypothesis hunting – looking for a pattern that confirms our current thinking.  And we have not proved anything.

Be Skeptical of Conclusions Drawn from Data.  In analyzing data, we need to remember five fundamentals:

  1. As the astronomer Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  In other words, if something seems too good to be true, we need to have overwhelming evidence to prove that it is true.
  2. Popularity does not determine proof.  Just because a lot of people believe something to be true does not make it true.
  3. Correlation is not causality.  Just because two things happen at the same time or one after the other does not mean that one event caused the other.
  4. Small sample sizes do not usually determine anything.  In short, one or two anecdotes does not equal a trend.
  5. Data usually is messy.  When the data lines up too perfectly, it is usually too good to be true and shows either a flaw in the data or the result of some after the fact hypothesis hunting.

Consider the Base Rate: As I have written before: Use the Base Rate For Better Decision Making, we need to consider the base rate in analyzing our data and making a decision.  Just because something is now twice as risky does not mean much if the initial risk is infinitesimally small.

Evaluate the Decisions That We Have Made: We need to look at the decisions that we make and evaluate them.  Did we make the right decision?  Why or why not? Then, ask what we can do to make a better decision in the future.  Decision-making is not a pure science; but, we do well to make our decision-making more scientific.  This evaluation of our own decisions and re-calibrating our probability or views when we receive new evidence, has been shown repeatedly to improve projections and forecasting.  If we ignore our decision-making track record, we get too confident in our decision-making abilities and begin to make poorer decisions.  If we do not evaluate our decisions, we will end up being like those talking head ‘experts’ on television, social media, or the newspapers – ‘always certain, usually wrong.’


By being scientific and following these guidelines, we can make better decisions that will move our companies forward.

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Hold Opinions Lightly (While Holding Convictions Tightly)

“When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir?”

John Maynard Keynes

In a leadership position, we need to hold our opinions lightly.  We need to be able to change our opinion or viewpoint when new data or insight comes to our attention.

Unfortunately, like politicians, many of us get locked into our opinions and continue to hold and advance these opinions in order not to appear as a “waffler.”  Worse than that, many of us are subject to confirmation bias whereby we use new data to confirm what we already believe rather than to critically assess and then update our opinions.

Keeping an open mind as new data come in is vital:

  1. We need to avoid making judgments on first impressions or other similar snap judgments
  2. We need to continually update our views of other people as we work with them more.
  3. We need to get all sides to an argument updating our views as additional information comes in
  4. We need to not get locked into a first hypothesis that we may be working under

In addition, we need to express our uncertainty in our opinions and decisions – “I am 80% certain that this…”.  By expressing this uncertainty, we allow our team members to share their viewpoints and express their own uncertainty.  By expressing this uncertainty, we will be holding “grayer” opinions.  We will be less likely to see everything as black or white: this person is totally wrong, and this person is totally correct.  Instead, we will see things in shades of gray: this person’s views seem more accurate right now than that other person.

The challenge in holding our opinions lightly is two-fold:

First, we may need to unlearn that we have always thought is true and how the world works. 

“The illiterate of the 21st century will be those…who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

Secondly, we then need to have the humility and the courage to change our minds and then admit that we were wrong to ourselves, our bosses, peers, and direct reports.

“And science means that you must change your mind when the evidence changes, however inconvenient that might be.”

Environmental Activist Mark Lynas (Who campaigned for years against GMO foods only to change his mind after the preponderance of evidence emerged that GMO foods were safe)

Holding our opinions lightly is a challenge; but it is essential to ensure that we follow the facts and the data, keep our opinions current with how the world works today, and then make the best decision possible with all the information available to us.


While we may hold our opinions lightly and sometimes change our positions back and forth, we need to be firm with our convictions and make sure that we never violate our principles and values in either our opinions or our actions.

Opinions lightly.

Convictions tightly.

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14 Basics to Master

Leadership training focuses intently on high level leadership skills – strategic planning, negotiation, managing stakeholders, projecting charisma, developing and communicating a vision.  These are certainly vital skills. 

But, to be an effective leader first requires that we master basic productivity and management skills.  Without these fundamentals, the most visionary and charismatic leader will fail.

Below, I offer a list of 14 mundane basics that we all most master to become a good, even a great, leader.  None of them are exciting; but all are necessary.

  1. Close Reading – necessary to understand complex documents and documents on subjects far outside our area of expertise.
  2. Speed Reading – needed to get through the overwhelming volume of information that assaults us each day in order to “detect the whispers of useful information in a howling hurricane of noise.” (The Economist)
  3. Writing – we need to be able to write clearly and simply in a way that our points are understood by the intended audience (Think: write at an eighth-grade level).
  4. Organization – especially managing commitments and follow up.  Without a system to ensure follow up we will not be able to create a culture of accountability
  5. Typing – We still use keyboards in this world of ours.  If we spend all day hunting and pecking with our fingers instead of typing, then we are not being efficient.  The one exception is those who are proficient at using voice software to interact with their computers
  6. Excel or Other Spreadsheets – Even after 40 years, spreadsheets remain everywhere in business; we need to be able to use them well to analyze and understand information
  7. Database Understanding – We need to understand how databases in general and our company database system (ERP) in particular work and what information can and cannot be gotten out of these systems
  8. Statistics – knowing the difference between correlation and causality; understanding the basics of probability; understanding data, especially how to use data in decision-making and how data can be manipulated to mislead.
  9. Smartphone Use – how to use our Smartphone effectively and have it link back to our computers, especially on keeping a calendar and reminders up to date
  10. Public Speaking – we need to be able to speak effectively in front of groups large and small to convey our message
  11. Psychology – understanding the motivations of people who work for and with us, especially in determining why someone or some team acts the way that it does.
  12. Accounting – we need to understand the basics of accounting: the debits and credits, revenues, profit, cash flow, and understanding a balance sheet
  13. Focus – we need to know how to focus on the most important and learn how to say ‘no’ to keep that focus and to learn how to avoid getting bogged down in unproductive activities
  14. How to Run a Meeting – we need to know how to create agendas, keep meetings on track, ensure everyone participates, and make our meetings productive

The first step to being a great leader is to be a good leader.  To be a good leader requires that we master these basics to move our companies forward.

What basics did I miss?

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Field Centric

As leaders, we can get wrapped up in so many different activities and meetings – meeting with the finance, human resources or marketing department; talking to investors, banks and insurance companies; strategic planning; looking at acquisition candidates or joint venture partners.  This is all the sexy stuff that we see business leaders do on TV or in the movies. 

Good leaders do not let these activities get in the way of what is most important – focusing on and appreciating the front line of the business.  Often referred to as the field, the front line of the business is where the money gets made; it is where salespeople win new customers and close deals; it is where the product or service gets produced, delivered, and/ or installed; it is where most of the employees of the company work.  As the late CEO of GE, Jack Welch, writes:

“The field is important, not the headquarters.”

Get Thee to the Field

We, as business leaders, need to get out into the field to truly understand our businesses:

  • Being in the field allows us to truly understand the nuts and bolts of the business.

“You have to understand what is happening on the ground.  You have to be able to see what works and what doesn’t and to adapt quickly.  Otherwise you’ll spend years running plays that have no chance of succeeding.”  Jonathan Starr  (Founder of Flagg Street Capital)

“The further you are from the combat, the dumber you are.”  David Petraeus (US General during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)

  • Being in the field keeps us humble, helping us to appreciate the difficulties, challenges, and hard work that produce the numbers we see each month on our financial statements.

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower (34th President of the United States)

  • Being in the field allows us to have an unfiltered view of the business:

“Leaders should maintain contact with the front-lines and with customers.  This allows for truthful information gathering unhindered by the filters (and personal agendas) of the different layers of management.”  Skills for Success: The Experts Show the Way

  • Being in the field brings the company together and improves morale.  It reduces the psychological distance between us in our corner office and the person in the factory, on the jobsite, or delivering the product.  It allows us “to shake hands and kiss babies”, showing our appreciation and thanks for the good job our employees are doing, especially during times of stress (such as recently during Covid-19).  If we are trying to change or strengthen our culture, interacting directly with people on the front line of the business is vital.


In all our companies, there must be a focus on and appreciation of the field – the front line of the business.  We can never forget that this is the one part of the business that makes money and pays for everything else.  As Stephen Covey says:

“The front line produces the bottom line.”

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Make Molehills

“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”

Unfortunately, too many leaders ignore this wise advice.  Instead, every minor issue becomes a major problem that needs to be addressed and resolved now.


Leaders make mountains out of molehills for two reasons:

  1. It allows us to take action and be the hero that resolves issues to make the company better.  It is very ego-gratifying.
  2. We are susceptible to “present bias.”  Present bias is the tendency to feel that an issue that is being discussed at this time is more important and urgent (and thus must be solved) than it really is. 

The Negative Effects of Mountain-Making

  1. The leader micro-manages and becomes involved in minor issues, re-aligning (at least temporarily) the priorities and focus of our teams
  2. Further, in pursuing the solution to the problem, the leader inevitably side-steps and undermines the processes in place within the company
  3. We increase stress within the business, putting employees on edge just waiting for the next issue that the leader allows to disrupt everyone’s day
  4. We give bad example.  When we make mountains, we create a culture within the company where mountain making is just the way that things get done.

In short, mountain making just makes it more difficult for the whole company to do its work.

Making Molehills

As leaders, we need to make molehills by:

  1. Taking a deep breath and responding thoughtfully rather than reacting when an issue comes across our desk
  2. Avoiding incendiary language and hyperbole in describing the situation or issue
  3. Realizing that more than 50% of such issues do not need to be addressed.  The issue just may need to be ignored (as too low of a priority).  The issue just may need to be watched and evaluated over time.
  4. Overcoming present bias and ensuring that every issue that we do address is first evaluated by its importance and then its urgency
  5. Letting our teams solve the problem in the time and place appropriate for the importance and urgency of the problem
  6. Ensuring that the problems are solved using the processes in the company


By ignoring minor issues and making molehills out of major issues, a good leader ensures that the company is functioning smoothly and is not subject to endless disruption and stress.  This gives employees the time and space to focus on getting their tasks done, continuously improving their processes, and moving our companies forward.

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The Four Stupidities of the Smart Leader

To be a good leader, we have to be intelligent: intellectually, socially and emotionally intelligent.  In a previous blog post, I even gave some advice on 8 Ways to Be As Smart As We Can Be.  Being smart, however, does not prevent us from doing stupid things.   Below, I discuss some of the stupidities intelligent leaders succumb to.

Confirmation Bias

According to Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

With confirmation bias, once we have latched onto a belief or opinion it takes a lot of mental work to change that belief or opinion.  It is mentally less taxing to just re-interpret new data to reinforce what we already believe than to use the new data to evolve or change our belief. And that is what we all do. 

All of us!

Research shows that confirmation bias is unrelated to intelligence and cognitive ability.  The strongest relationship between confirmation bias and intelligence is that the smarter we are, the better that we become in justifying our views and “proving” that we are acting rationally and without confirmation bias, even when we are under the spell of confirmation bias.

Curse of Knowledge

As leaders, we know a lot and we have usually studied and learned a lot.  With all the knowledge that we have gained, we often find it difficult to imagine what it is like for someone else to not know what we know.  This is the curse of knowledge.  Because we know something, it is obvious to us even if it is not obvious to the person trying to learn it. 

This curse of knowledge causes leaders to do stupid things in several ways.  First, we just assume someone else knows all that we know.  This causes problems when decisions are made by others who don’t know or don’t understand a key fact or concept.  Second, smart leaders get impatient with others who struggle to learn something that is obvious to the leader.  Third, the curse of knowledge leads to over-confidence and complacency; we know so much that we don’t need to learn any more.  As the academic and author Adam Grant writes:

The curse of knowledge is that is closes our minds to what we don’t know.


Smart people and smart leaders are good at understanding complexity, and often they love complexity.  There is often nothing so satisfying and ego-gratifying as deciphering and interpreting an advanced and sophisticated idea. We see this with most government, academic, and consulting reports.   But this complexity comes with a cost.  Not everyone understands the complex argument, especially those people (think: production, operations, and service workers) who actually do the work to implement the idea.  The problem with complexity is only getting worse as the writer Jonah Goldberg asserts:

The upper class in this country is making the rules of the game more complex.  And the problem can be simply stated: Complexity is a subsidy.  The more complex government makes society, the more it rewards those with the resources to deal with that complexity, and the more it punishes those who do not. 

Having All the Answers

Intelligent leaders are often impatient leaders; they have the answers, and they want to make it happen now.  Unfortunately, by having (and stating) all the answers, intelligent leaders can turn their business cultures into the “genius with a thousand helpers.” 

A good leader asks more questions, even questions that he or she already knows the answers to.  By listening to the answers to the question, this leader learns whether the other person understands the issue, and it gives the other person a deeper stake in the answer to the question.


What is the antidote to the four stupidities listed above?

  1. Involve others in key decision and policy making, especially those people who will do the work
  2. Keep it simple.  Complex language and complex ideas just confuse people and just prove that we do not understand it well enough to make it simple.

“What things have you been over-complicating?  What are the top three things you need to simplify for your team to succeed?” Paul Akers

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The regular readers of my blog are aware of my focus on Decisiveness and Getting Things Done.

But, as in all things in leadership, balance is required.  Good leaders balance this decisiveness with a healthy dose of patience.  There are times when we need to act; there are times when we need to wait and be patient.

Specifically, there are three times when patience is essential to move our businesses forward.

Patience When Emotional

This is the hardest and most important time for us to be patient. When angry or emotional, we need to be patient, end the discussion or meeting, and come back to the issue later when emotions are not running quite so high. The Chinese say it well:

“If we are patient in a moment of anger, we will escape a hundred days of sorrow.”

Chinese Proverb

Warren Buffett probably says it better:

“Don’t do things in anger: ‘You can always tell a man to go to hell tomorrow.’” 

Warren Buffett

Patience in Problem Solving and Decision-Making

When our direct reports or teams encounter problems or obstacles, as leaders, we all want to jump in, fix the problem, and move onto the next task.  Instead, we often need to practice patience, only offer our coaching, and let the individual or the team sort out and resolve the problem themselves.  This develops the individual or team and builds confidence for future challenges.

Likewise, in decision making, we do not need to make every decision now.  A good rule of thumb (from the book: Skills for Success: The Experts Show the Way) is that 15% of decisions need to mature and be made at a later date and a further 5% of decisions need not be made at all – either the decision is not important enough or the issues resolved themselves.

Patience in Long-Term Negotiations and Strategy

As leaders, we need to think long-term and have the patience to let some problems or issues simmer for a while.  Perhaps, it might not be the time to solve the problem.  Perhaps, the issue may not be a high enough priority for us or our team.  Or perhaps, the problems or issues just need to play themselves out. 

In a previous life, I was involved in acquisitions.  We often would try to acquire a company, not agree on a price, and just wait for the right moment when the deal would come together.  In one deal, we tried to acquire a company in the Midwest in 1996, kept in touch, and then finally completed the acquisition in 2005 – nine years later.

Such patience in sticking to a long-term plan is often uncomfortable.  As leaders, we want to make a decision and get the job done. This patience is even more difficult when circumstances turn against us.  

Several years ago, there was a young, brilliant chess player who was rising rapidly up the ranks of chess greats.  He seemed like a future world champion.  But a former world champion doubted this, remarking:

He will never become World Champion (in chess) since he doesn’t have the patience to endure worse positions for hours in order to win the game at the end.


As leaders, we need to be patient to make decisions or take advantage of opportunities when it is the time to do so and most advantageous to us.  The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu sums it up well.

Do you have the patience to wait / Till your mud settles and the water is clear.

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Three Keys to Teamwork

The fundamental determinant of success on most projects and at most companies is teamwork.  Volumes have been written about how to foster teamwork.  My small contribution is to suggest that each of us, when part of a team, keep three fundamentals front of mind – simplicity, accountability, and humility.


In everything our team does we all need to embrace simplicity. 

  • How can we keep our team to the smallest number of people possible?
  • How can we make our objectives as straightforward and clear as possible?
  • How can we solve each problem as simply as possible?
  • How can we keep our language and communication as simple and understandable as possible?
  • How can we be sure that our product or process can be understood and used by the customer or colleague who will use it?

The more we add complexity to any project, the more we add ambiguity and confusion.  Keeping everything as simple as possible allows tasks and projects to be completed and implemented.  We can always make things more complex later.


Every good student in high school or college dreads group projects.  Why? Because in any group, there are always 1 – 2 students who don’t do what they say and don’t carry their weight, requiring the good student to do far more than their fair share of the work in order to get a good grade on the project.

Unfortunately, this happens in business as well. 

Any successful team requires that everyone carry their weight and live up to their obligations to the team and each other.  Far too often, team meetings involve re-hashing work that should have been done by one of the team members and then re-adjusting the task or project schedule to account for the delay that person caused by not fulfilling their commitments.  Without a high level of accountability and each team member doing what he or she says, the task or project gets delayed or lingers incomplete.


To have great teamwork, we all need a healthy dose of humility.  Humility allows us to truly listen to and learn from the person or persons that are actually doing the work.  With humility, we realize that we do not have all the answers and need to go out and seek the answers from someone who does know.  This humility is reflected in the world of lean (and Zen Buddhism) through the catchphrase to be a beginner.

“Be humble: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’”  Shunryu Suzuki

Finally, humility ensures that the team is not overrun by the HiPPO effect.  The HiPPO effect, so common in the tech industry and with consultants, is where everyone listens to and blindly follows along with the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, even when the HiPP does not know what they are doing.


Constant reminders, either on a weekly basis or at the start of team meetings, of the importance of simplicity, accountability, and humility will keep these three keys front of mind and help integrate them into a successful team dynamic.

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Don’t Get Angry

The Ancients knew a thing or two about anger:

Whom the Gods want to destroy, they first make angry.” Ancient Greek Proverb

“Great anger is more destructive than the sword.” Indian Proverb

“The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life.”  Japanese Samurai Proverb

“The key to leadership is self-control… including the mastery of anger, which is more difficult to defeat than the greatest wrestler.” Genghis Khan

“There’s nothing manly about rage.  It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being – and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners.” Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor)

Let’s take the hint and keep anger out of our managerial kit bag.

Angry at Ourselves

The old adage about anger usually applies.  When we are truly angry, we are angry at ourselves.  As a leader, we may feel that our anger is justified – someone did not get their work done on time (@^%$#*&).  But, in most cases, the useful answer is to be angry with ourselves. 

  • Did we communicate the assignment and the due date clearly? 
  • Did we follow up consistently to ensure that everything was proceeding on time?

Our anger will inevitably be interpreted by our people as being unfair. Where we may see just cause for anger, our employees see that we are angry at ourselves for not communicating clearly or following up well.  And our people will feel, often quite correctly, that we are taking this anger out on them.

Cooling Off

When we begin to get angry, we need to force ourselves to take a “cooling-off” period. A day or even a couple of hours will assuage a lot of our anger and allow us to be clear-headed in finding a resolution to what made us so furious. Using anger or the leadership style of “the beatings will stop once morale improves” all but assures that morale will not improve.

“Don’t do things in anger: ‘You can always tell a man to go to hell tomorrow.’” Warren Buffett


There is good reason why anger is one of the seven deadly sins.  Anger is a strong emotion, and, as an emotion, it is nearly impossible to control.  Letting anger run its course damages reputations, relationships, and company morale, often permanently.

In short, as good leaders, we can never get angry.

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A Good Leader is a Good Storyteller

If only I could never open my mouth…until the abstract idea had reached its highest point – and had become a story!

Zorba the Greek

Since joining my current company, I have been emphasizing several concepts, such as “trust but verify” and “field-centric” (what happens in the operations is most important since that is where the money is made).  Among several concepts for sales, I have been pushing on “when the customer says yes, shut up and stop selling.”

It was early December, one of my direct reports and I were trying to convince my boss about some bonus payments for deserving employees.  After several minutes, my boss agreed.  I then proceeded to further explain why he had made such a wise decision to say yes.  After about 3 minutes of listening, he turned to me and said simply: “stop selling.”  Beet-red and embarrassed, I finally shut up.

This story drives home several points:

  1. I am far from perfect
  2. I need to remember what I preach and actually practice it
  3. Shutting up after getting the sale is a good thing to do

But, the broader point is that telling this story drives home the message in a far more memorable way then just writing: “When the customer says yes, shut up and stop selling.”

As leaders, we tend to rely on our logic and present dry facts about what we should and should not do.  We can do better; we can tell stories.

“Storytelling is by far the most underrated skill in business.”  Gary Vaynerchuk

Stories are vital to leadership.  A good leader needs to be a good storyteller.  Why?

First of all, the human mind appears to be primed to listen to, learn from, and remember stories.  Evolutionary psychologists would attribute this to the tens of thousands of years that our ancestors have been sitting around a fire at night sharing myths and stories.  When we hear a story, we are interested and engaged.

Second, stories move an idea from something abstract to something concrete and visual.  We have been trained to visualize a story in our head from the time that we were first read to as infants by our parents.  This visualization in our heads embeds the story deeper in our mind than mere facts can ever do.  When we hear a story, we are more likely to remember.

Third, as the old sales proverb states, facts tell, but stories sell.  Sales professionals have known about the power of stories for years.  A sales consultant colleague of mine, Paul McGhee, explains it well:

Selling is telling the right stories.  Some stories are best told with pictures, some with numbers, some with analogies, some with comparisons, some with customer quotations, some with 3rd party data and some with internally observed metrics.  You don’t tell every story every time.  But if you…tell the right stories at the right time in the right way – you win more.

Finally, stories can give context that helps make an idea more easily understood.  A story can be an example.  A story can be an analogy.  A story shares a little about the storyteller, humanizing him or her.  And, a story often explains the “why” behind the idea.  In short, as author Matthew Kelly writes,

If you wish to win people over to your team or to your point of view, do not go to war or argue with them – tell them a story.

By now, have I convinced you of the power of storytelling?

If so, it is time for me to shut up.

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Apology Accepted

As a leader, we will make mistakes or behave (in a moment of anger or frustration) inappropriately.  The usual response is to blame someone else, ignore the mistake or minimize the bad behavior, and then just move on. 

“I have many faults but being wrong is not one of them.”  Jimmy Hoffa

“I was wrrrr.  I was wrrrr. I was wrrrr…” The Fonz from Happy Days (Unable to admit that he was wrong)

Such behavior is destructive to our team and the culture we are all trying to build.

  • Everyone knows that the mistake was made or that the incident occurred
  • We are dodging accountability for our actions
  • We weaken our standing among our employees
  • We miss an opportunity to learn from the mistake or critically evaluate our behavior.

Unfortunately, too many leaders and too many politicians are like Jimmy Hoffa and the Fonz.  We do not have the courage and the humility to admit our mistakes and apologize. But, as Wharton Management Professor Maurice Schweitzer writes, apologies can move our companies forward.

“People are afraid to apologize for two reasons: one is loss of status; the other is that apologizing makes you more vulnerable.  And yet apologies are incredibly powerful in terms of rebuilding a relationship.  They help people move beyond an error.  They restore a sense of rapport among the parties involved.”

As leaders, we must instead be forthright, apologize for our mistake or bad behavior and any pain or difficulty that it caused, and resolve to learn from what happened and do better. 

“I apologize for the way that I reacted in our meeting on Monday.  My behavior was uncalled for and did not live up to the standards I have set for myself.  I am sorry and will work hard to earn back your respect and always behave respectfully and in line with our company’s values.  Thank you and please accept my apology.”

With such an apology, the door is now open for us, as leaders, to examine our behavior, to evaluate why the mistake occurred, to learn, and to move on.

The final stage of any apology is to do better – to behave better and to make better decisions.  In the words of the immortal philosopher Jay-Z:

“The best apology is changed behavior.”

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Humor – A Vital Leadership Skill

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower (34th President of the United States)

Having humor in the workplace is crucial to leadership success and to developing a positive, even fun, workplace culture.  There are two parts to humor that every leader must have:

  • Good humor
  • A sense of humor

Let me explain:

Good Humor

Good humor requires us to be courteous, upbeat, and positive even when angry or when things may be terrible at the company or, more likely, at home.  This is difficult, but essential.  It requires putting on a “leadership game face” even when we do not feel like talking to other people, let alone smiling.

The team takes clues from its leaders.  An angry, sour, annoyed leader will often bring the whole team down around him or her, even when these emotions come from someplace far removed from the office.

A Sense of Humor

“Humor, used skillfully, greases the management wheels.  It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages.”  Fabio Sala

As the quote above describes, humor is an important leadership tool in creating a more positive work environment.  Humor also humanizes the leader taking him or her out of the leadership rule and making him or her appear to be just a normal person who is pleasant to work with and be around. 

Of course, humor needs to avoid the “Third Rails” of sex, race, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.  But, a good joke or humorous comment or, often better, a humorous self-deprecating comment (but only if we have already established our competence and credibility) from the leader lightens the atmosphere in the office and makes the leader appear to be more human.

Use Sarcasm with Caution

In small doses, sarcasm can be funny and effective.  It can make a point about the absurdity of a situation.  It can allow us to be seen as one of the team.  But, sarcasm can hurt and is all too often negative and a way to be nasty without seeming nasty.  Such sarcasm goes against the goal of creating a positive and enjoyable workplace. Leader beware.

And Some Humor

In a blog about humor, we have to inject a little humor.  Below, see some humorous, maybe silly, maybe insightful, quotes to share:

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”  Groucho Marx

“There’s one way to find out if a man is honest – ask him. If he says, ‘Yes’, you know he is a crook.  Groucho Marx

“I intend to live forever.  So far, so good.”  Steven Wright

“If I agreed with you, we would both be wrong.”  Steven Tyler

“If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”  Woody Allen

“There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell them.”  Yogi Berra

“We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”  Yogi Berra

“People sometimes stumble over the truth, but usually they pick themselves up and hurry about their business.”  Winston Churchill

“The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”    Casey Stengel

“There are three signs of old age: loss of memory … I forget the other two.”  Red Skelton

“’Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”  Abraham Lincoln

“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”  Dave Barry

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.”  Dave Barry

“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.”  Garrison Keillor

“Sincerity – if you can fake it, you’ve got it made.”  George Burns

“It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.”  Moliere

Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.  That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.”  Jack Handey

“Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.”  Lily Tomlin

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”  Kermit the Frog

“If a man comes at you carrying a knife, you can be pretty sure he has a fork in the other hand.”  Danish Proverb

“What good is happiness.  You can’t buy money with it.”  Henny Youngman

“Marge, don’t discourage the boy.  Weaseling out of things is important to learn.  It’s what separates us from the animals… Except the weasel.”  Homer Simpson

“That’s a problem for future Homer.  Man, I don’t envy that guy.” Homer Simpson

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Seek Out the ‘Useful Answer’

“When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” 

Dalai Lama

In my company, as in many others, we have a formal system to review work that we have done.  Whether called post-project reviews, re-caps, or post-mortems, these reviews give the people involved an opportunity to reflect on the goods and bads and lessons learned on their work.

Unfortunately, these reviews can be useless if the employee writing the review opines about how he or she and their team did everything great and everyone else dropped the ball and caused all the problems.  This is the natural human response as we look to take pride in what we have done well and to deflect blame away from what we have done poorly.

“According to Attribution Theory, people explain their successes and failures by attributing them to factors that will allow them to feel as good as possible about themselves.”

Bradley Staats

To counter this universal human tendency, we require the employee writing the review to answer fully one question:

“What could we have done better to make the project or initiative more successful?”

Answering this question provides a useful and implementable answer that can benefit the employee and the company and serve as either a ‘lesson learned’ or as a reminder.  This ‘useful answer’ is so effective because it requires the employee to focus on his or her responsibility for the entire project or initiative even when they may not be in total control.

In the many reviews that we do, the ‘useful answers’ to this question are consistent:

  • We needed to communicate more interactively with the customer / end user to ensure that we were on the right path.
  • We needed to be clearer in our directives with the other parties, especially on their commitment and the due date.
  • We needed to follow up more consistently and insistently with the other party.
  • We needed to better understand and adhere to the schedule.
  • We needed to better anticipate and plan for the problems and challenges that occurred.
  • We needed to ‘raise the red flag’ and get a higher level of management involved when problems first appeared.

These ‘useful answers’ are crucial because the employees involved have 100% control over his or her own actions and can do better on each of these points on the next project or initiative.

These ‘useful answers’ are also great reminders that the tools and practices of good management and good project management are not that complex.  But, these tools and practices only work when they are used.

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When Negotiating, Selling or Just Persuading, Quality Over Quantity

Niro Sivanathan is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, who teaches Negotiations, Influence and Decision-Making.  His psychological insights can help all of us be better negotiators, influencers and decision makers.  In this blog, I let Niro’s words do most of the talking.

Avoid Irrelevant Points

Niro writes:

Diagnostic information is information of relevance to the evaluation that is needed. Non-diagnostic information is information that is irrelevant or inconsequential to that evaluation. And when both categories of information are mixed, dilution occurs.”

In summary, when we stray from our central argument, whether we want to add background information or share something interesting, we weaken our argument.  Psychologically speaking, the irrelevant information (non-diagnostic information in Niro’s quote) does not help persuade the other person, it just makes it more difficult for them to understand and thus to be persuaded.  Politicians have known this for years as expressed in the political proverb:

If you can’t convince them, confuse them.

And its contrapositive:

If you don’t confuse them, then you can convince them.

Quality Matters More Than Quantity

When we are persuading, we all think that adding further points will help our position.  Instead, adding more, but weaker, arguments worsens our position:

The psychological explanation for this is one of averaging. In this model, we take in information and those pieces of information are afforded a weight or score. And our minds do not add those pieces of information, but rather, average them out. So when you introduce irrelevant, or even weak arguments, those weak arguments reduce the weight of your overall argument.

In short, if we have three “A” negotiating points, adding three “C” negotiating points does not make our argument even stronger (three “A’s” plus three “C’s” is greater than three “A’s”) .  Instead, it means that the merit of our argument is now at the “B” level, not the “A” level.  Fewer strong arguments are far better than many average or weak arguments.

Niro again:

The take-away for communicators is to focus on quality over quantity.  You cannot increase the quality of an argument by simply increasing the quantity of your argument. The next time you want to speak up in a meeting it is important to note that the delivery of your message is every bit as important as the content. Stick to strong arguments.  Because your arguments don’t add up, in the minds of the receiver, they average out.


When negotiating, selling or persuading, keep it short and simple:

  1. Stick to relevant information
  2. Only communicate the strongest arguments

“If you pile on too many different reasons to support your case, it can make your audience defensive – and cause them to reject your entire argument based on its least compelling points. Instead of diluting your argument, lead with a few of your strongest points.” Adam Grant

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