The Paradox of Leading Well

The spirit of industrialism is alive and well in board rooms and leadership approaches. Solely allocating resources and leveraging innovation to maximize profit fails to understand the most valuable resource of all: people. The conventional wisdom of that spirit is that more is always more, data rules the day, and only results matter. The paradox of leading well inverts those tendencies and reveals a deeper reservoir of effectiveness.

Less is More

At one point in my career, I was serving in administration at a school, teaching a few classes, working as a part-time youth pastor and going to school concurrently. The administrative role alone involved dealing with student discipline, curriculum planning, and teacher observations. The days were long, but the checklists were longer. Like a cat chasing after a laser, I was expending a lot of energy in many directions but accomplishing little.

If I had a bit more wisdom during that time, I would have understood that dialing back and saying no to several roles and requests would have allowed a few things to thrive, instead of many things merely surviving. There are many reasons we take on more than we can handle and achieve less than our potential, but the underlying cause is our failure to understand the simple axiom that in many cases less is more.

Greg McKeown’s 2014 work Essentialism is a tremendous and concise read on the disciplined pursuit of less.

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential. (McKeown, 2014, p. 5)

Leaders who apply this principle to their own lives and encourage it in their followers will curtail burnout, promote creativity, and foster a culture of care for their people.

Data is Only the Beginning

One of my favorite sci-fi characters made a profound observation: “Logic. Logic. Logic. Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end” (Spock of Vulcan). The same might be said of data. Imagine a business prospectus filled with charts and graphs all pointing to the undeniable conclusion that an organization’s strategy must change to fit the market. Such data is a precious revelation that must be analyzed and integrated. However, it is only the first step in restructuring and seeking attunement to a new strategy.

How does this information sync with the core values and vision of the organization? What practical steps do leaders need to take to effectively communicate and incorporate the data’s implications into the culture? When will the changes required to adapt need to be implemented? These are only a few of the major questions that follow. Leaders who fail to answer them well will quickly see the result of their lack of wisdom. Leaders who ignore them are simply foolish. Data is not the silver bullet. It is a GPS that lets you know when you need to readjust your heading. Possessing a GPS doesn’t mean you can neglect to change the oil in, refuel, or regularly service your car.

To rely solely on data without human intuition or judgment presupposes that the calculus of decision-making doesn’t need the human element at all. Anthony (2014) argued that it was “time to make business human again” and outlined three components: customer value, viewing employees as assets that need to be nurtured, and a motivating purpose. So, yes, by all means, do all the market research you want; it’s no doubt an essential step for almost all businesses to better understand their customer base. But if all of that data cannot be turned into something that’s more than just a product, something that connects you to each individual customer, then there is ultimately no value for it. Disregard the data to your own peril but the cost of denying your humanity, whether personal or collective, might be your soul. As a result, there are many who tend to follow the Hoshin Kanri route (know more about the hoshin kanri definition here) to streamline their work using the right amount of data and strategize accordingly.

Motivation Matters

Leaders in all types of organizational contexts heavily rely upon “assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science” and “pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm” (Pink, 2009, p. 9). Organizational culture, core values, ethics, and best practices all interconnect with the bottom line. Bypassing each of the former for the latter may lead to immediate gains but always with a greater long term cost. Instead of only asking how to achieve your ultimate goals, it’s important to ask what those goals are and why. Then your practices, policies, philosophy, and people can be aligned.

Pragmatism can have many practical advantages but one need only take a cursory glance at case studies of corporate abuse and corruption to see that motivation matters. Wells Fargo was fined in 2016 for aggressive cross-selling practices that gleaned additional data from customers that might lead to increased revenue for the bank. In order to meet sales quotas, bank officials opened fraudulent accounts by misleading customers and without authorization, in many cases (Elson and Ingram, 2018). As a result of that, the company must have lost a lot of business, causing many of their clients to wonder “How to Close Your Wells Fargo Account” in simple and easy steps and move to a more reliable sustainable bank instead.

Ultimately, an imbalance in the type of motivation is a better way to frame the situation. Extrinsic motivation isn’t inherently immoral but if it’s exclusively emphasized it can lead to immoral practices. Employees need adequate, even generous, compensation and benefits, which are extrinsic. However, intrinsic motivation is more powerful in cultivating creativity, loyalty, and efficiency. It also seeks input and develops a shared vision based on convictions, passions, talents, and resources.

Innovation and excellence are the natural results of helping people experience intrinsic motivation. But intrinsic motivation can not survive in an organization that treats its employees like pets. (Kohn, 1993, p. 49).

Thomas (2008) observed that the “high-grade ore of extrinsic motivation has already been mined and that we must now focus on improving intrinsic rewards, which make the work itself more fulfilling and energizing” (p. 9). Fulfilling and energizing work performed by employees who are highly engaged opens doors to possibilities and outcomes that a model of mere compliance would slam shut.

Leaders are tasked with an increasingly difficult role: navigating tumultuous change with limited resources. While intentionality in focus, balance in data, and motivation are hardly the only areas that need inverting, there are still two options before leaders. They can either blindly adopt the inclinations of the past or dare to embrace the paradox of leading well.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash



Anthony, S. (2014). In 2014, Resolve to Make Your Business Human Again. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2.

Elson, R. J., & Ingram, P. (2018). Wells Fargo and the Unauthorized Customer Accounts: A Case Study. Global Journal of Business Pedagogy (GJBP), 2(1), 124–133.

Kohn, A. (1993). Alfie Kohn Responds. Harvard Business Review, 71(6), 48.

McKeown, G. (2014). Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less. New York: Crown Business.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Thomas, K. W. (2008). Intrinsic motivation at work: building energy & commitment. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Chris Dunn
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