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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • September 30, 2013
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The 3 Dumbest Things A Leader Can Say 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

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Most all the time, great leadership is hard. Very occasionally, it’s pretty simple – like just not saying dumb things.

In the spirit of simple leadership, I give you my personal top three dumb things leaders shouldn’t say. No doubt your mileage will vary:

1. “Don’t bring me any surprises.”

I hear it all the time, and so do you (maybe you’re even guilty of it yourself) – a leader is blindsided by some event they couldn’t have predicted, and, out of embarrassment, swears they’ll never be caught unawares again.

At first they work harder, longer, assimilating data like an apocalypse is on the horizon that only they can avert, but then…bam. Another unexpected shoe drops, another unpredictable event occurs, and our leader is left with egg on their face all over again.

Redoubling their efforts, the leader adds another layer of protection against catastrophe – a mantra they begin doling out to all their direct reports: “Don’t bring me any surprises” (or its close cousin “Don’t bring me any bad news“).

Well, guess what happens when you tell people often enough not to bring you any bad news or surprises? They don’t bring you any bad news or surprises.

Does that mean that all of a sudden there aren’t any bad news items or surprises going around?

Of course not.

It just means they’re brushing them under the carpet…because, well, because you told them to.

(Where did you think they were going to put all the bad news and surprises you told them not to bring to you?)

Which in turn means that there is now a time bomb waiting to explode right in your face.If you’re concerned about predictability and consistency, do yourself a favor and don’t try to wish away bad news or surprises.

Try the opposite.

How about telling people “The first whiff you get of bad news or a surprise, bring it right here.” That way you do actually stand a chance of controlling things.

2. “If you were an animal, what kind of an animal would you be?”

Or “What body of water would you be?”, or “What books influenced you when you were young?” or “What’s your favorite color?” – any dumb-ass question, in fact, that you think provides some deep insight into whether or not a potential employee has the ‘right stuff’.

It’s all meaningless pseudo-psychological mumbo jumbo, and adds precisely zero to a true understanding of a candidate’s ability to do the job you’re hiring for.

If you need to ask one of these pointless, irrelevant questions for your own peace of mind, by all means go ahead – just don’t confuse what’s going on with an effective job interview.

3. “Don’t take it personally.”

Really? You’re talking to, let me check…yes, a person, about them, their work, their livelihood, their ideas, their sense of competence, their choices, their discretionary effort, their life’s work, and you’re telling them not to take it personally?

How about you give every person who works for you a free pass for a week to make whatever comments they like to your face about what you say, do, or suggest, in whatever terms they wish, so long as they preface it with “Don’t take this personally…”.

If you don’t think the act of working with others is in any way ‘personal’, perhaps you might be better thinking of a career as, I don’t know, a beekeeper, perhaps? They really don’t take things personally.

What about you? What's The Dumbest Question You've Been Asked In Business?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!


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  1. I disagree with #3 and here is the reason: The last thing people need to do in a professional setting is wear their emotions on their shoulder. Someone Is Going to come along and rip them right off, and for a myriad of reasons. People don’t even need a reason to offend – but they will, and enthusiastically so. Predictable success is about balance. I think a real leader would purposefully seek the truth in all situations no matter how it reaches their doorstep. It’s about perspective and sight. When someone takes an offense at face value and doesn’t see the deeper broken foundations, you’re going to do and say things that you will regret. You’ll seize being a leader and become a follower of your emotions, agenda, ideals and motives.
    So this leader says “Don’t take it personally. Seek the truth of the matter and go from there”.

    1. Ryan,
      Thank you for your insight. We appreciate you adding to the discussion and couldn’t agree more with your perspective.
      We look forward to hearing from you again in the future!
      Sarah Berger, Community Manager, Predictable Success

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