Anyone who has known me for more than a few minutes could probably guess I love Calvin and Hobbes. They’d be right. I still miss Bill Watterson.
One of the strips that occasionally floats to the surface in my cranial flotsam and jetsam is about Santa Claus. At one point, our hero raised questioned the all-knowing perception of Santa, pointing out that your goodness is really based only on outward perception, and as long as his actions were good, his motives were irrelevant. This, of course, led to the question of how good one needed to be to reach a certain level of presents. Fair questions all around.
I think about this when I hear people talk about leadership, engagement, performance and so forth. We don’t see much in the world when it comes to motives, and instead are forced to examine one’s output to gauge their worth. I may have every intent of writing a blog post each day, and could spend hours starting and trashing substandard ideas. (FYI: I don’t throw much away. My standards are pretty low.) But if you are looking for content, none of those false starts count. All that matters is what gets delivered. So do I need to write continuously, or do I need to publish regularly? Which is more important?
We want our employees to be engaged, usually defined by the quality and quantity of their work. But our perception of these two measures are largely influenced by those with whom we surround them. I have a tough time measuring productivity in a vacuum, but I can easily measure them against each other or against a metric I’ve created. In fact, my top employee may be able to do the work of four poor ones, so they do twice the work as someone else and spend the rest of their time playing solitaire tidily winks, daydreaming of the zombie apocalypse, or looking for another job. It doesn’t much matter if reaching their goal is only a quarter of their actual capacity. So is it important to be a highly engaged producer, or just look like one?
We look for leaders who are courageous, smart, brave and daring. We want them to live our values and be the standard bearers for our brand/country/ideas. Does it matter if it’s all an act? There have been some very successful leaders in our nation and corporations who, in the end, turned out to have made some questionable decisions. (I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton, Anthony Wiener, John Edwards, Rod Blagojevich, Jim McGreevy, Gary Condit, Russell Wasendorf Sr., Ken Lay (no relation, I swear), Brian Dunn, Jamie Dimon, Mark Hurd, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Bernie Madoff, and so forth.) Yet in most cases, they were very successful and, unquestionably, daring. So is it important that they be everything we look for in our dream leader, or that they lead to great results (hopefully while keeping their hands to themselves)?
It’s often said that perception is reality, so I’m hard pressed to say the behinds the scenes bit matters to most. Sure, we’d like to hold ourselves (meaning humans in general) to a higher standard, but until the misdeeds of others are unveiled (and, let’s face it, often afterwards as well), we focus on the delivery, not the method.
So, do you have to be good, or just act good? And what’s the tipping point between the two?