Why Leaders Need to Do More Than Walk the Walk

Aphorisms endure because they capture sage advice in memorable phrases. Our question is what do some of the more enduring aphorisms and memorable quotes teach us about leadership?

Aphorisms are built upon analogies that concisely capture complex ideas. The power of analogies lies in their ability to explain something less familiar in terms of something more familiar[1]. For example, the analogies expressed in the aphorisms “talk is cheap”, “practice what you preach”, and “actions speak louder than words[2]”, enable us to map the known concept of monetary or moral value to speech and position the relative value of speech and behavior in human relationships[3]. These same relationships are embodied in the popular aphorism about leadership which states that it is not enough for leaders to “talk the talk” they must also “walk the walk”. Yes, leaders inspire people through their oratory skills[4], but it is their actions that build trust and inspire followers to action[5].

Abstract: Aphorisms endure because they capture sage advice in memorable phrases. We examine some popular aphorisms and suggest that there may even be a biological basis for their power. Finally, we use a combination of these aphorisms to create what we believe is a more complete mantra for thinking about leadership. A mantra that guides leadership in creating an enduring collective intelligence that will produce a sustainable competitive advantage.

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Aphorisms endure because they capture sage advice in memorable phrases. Our question is what do some of the more enduring aphorisms and memorable quotes teach us about leadership?

Aphorisms are built upon analogies that concisely capture complex ideas. The power of analogies lies in their ability to explain something less familiar in terms of something more familiar[1]. For example, the analogies expressed in the aphorisms “talk is cheap”, “practice what you preach”, and “actions speak louder than words[2]”, enable us to map the known concept of monetary or moral value to speech and position the relative value of speech and behavior in human relationships[3]. These same relationships are embodied in the popular aphorism about leadership which states that it is not enough for leaders to “talk the talk” they must also “walk the walk”. Yes, leaders inspire people through their oratory skills[4], but it is their actions that build trust and inspire followers to action[5].

Aphorisms that position the “walk” over the “talk” may actually have a biological basis. In his fascinating TED talk neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran outlines the function of recently discovered mirror neurons which “allow us to learn complex social behaviors, some of which formed the foundations of human civilization as we know it[6].” When leadership visibly “walks the walk” they trigger this learning mechanism in all of their followers. Deutschman, in “Walking the Walk”, presents numerous examples of how great leaders from Gandhi and Dr. King to Steve Jobs and Ray Crock inspired their followers by walking the walk in the extreme.

But, is “talking the talk” and “walking the walk” a complete mantra for leadership? We think not.

Consider another popular dictum, “think before you speak”. Or Henry Ford’s famous quote, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” Our thoughts at once both inspire us to action and limit what we can achieve.

Deutschman notes that when Ray Crock founded McDonalds he wanted it to be a place where parents would bring their children for a family dinner. Crock understood that cleanliness was one of the most important criteria for a family in selecting a restaurant. He embodied this thought in the employee training manual which dedicated more than half of its pages to defining the routines and processes required to keep a McDonalds clean, that was talking the talk. He reinforced this on his visits to franchises where he would walk around the restaurant picking up litter and depositing it in the trash barrel, he visibly walked the walk. Through talk and walk he drove home the belief in cleanliness making it impossible for an employee to walk by litter without picking it up.

This too has a biological basis. Psychologist Leon Festinger developed the theory of “cognitive dissonance”[7]. Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress a person experiences when trying to rationalize conflicting beliefs, or when confronted with information or actions that contradict their beliefs. Festinger found the human drive for internal consistency of thought is a powerful motivator, as powerful as any other basic human drive such as hunger or survival. Ray Crock may not have known it, but when he made cleanliness one of McDonalds’ basic beliefs, and both talked and walked consistent with those beliefs, he was putting cognitive dissonance to work for him.

So thinking the right thought is a powerful tool for leadership, but what are the right thoughts for leadership to think? Simon Sinek has developed a visual metaphor that he calls the “Golden Circle”[8]. It consists of three concentric circles, labeled WHY, HOW and WHAT. The center circle is the organization’s WHY, its reason for existence, its higher purpose. The outer ring is the WHAT, the products or services the organization provides. The middle ring, the HOW, is the secret sauce that differentiates one organization’s WHAT from that of a competitor. Sinek explains that the difference between managers and leaders is the direction in which their thinking traverses the Golden Circle. Managers think from the outside in, starting with the WHAT and proceeding to the HOW and rarely ever reaching the WHY. This produces short-term thinking about the organization’s current products and services. In contrast, great leaders start with the WHY and think about their organization’s higher purpose. They know that today’s products, services and secret sauce will soon be history. They know that to compete they will need a continuous stream of new products and services with yet another secret sauce.

Sinek claims that employees and customers of great organizations are drawn to them not for their WHAT and HOW, but rather for their WHY. He explains there is a biological basis for this. Evaluating and valuing an organization’s WHAT and HOW depends on the analytical powers of the brain’s neocortex. Understanding and believing in the WHY is emotional, it relates to the human need to belong to something bigger than ourselves. The decision to believe in the WHY is the domain of the evolutionarily older limbic brain. Sinek argues that a person’s decision to buy your product or service is made at the limbic level long before it is justified, if ever, by the neocortex.

So how does leadership capture the WHY in a coherent set of thoughts? This is no simple task. Leadership has to ask and answer a series of tough questions. What values are necessary to achieve our higher purpose? What mental models, analogies, metaphors, and language will communicate this purpose, the vision of the future, and the strategy by which the organization will attain it? And when leadership has answered all of these questions they must embody their thoughts in the talk they talk and reinforce it by the walk they walk.

But something is still missing, we have only considered leaders and not the people they lead. Bill Gates once said “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” And Jack Welch noted “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” This drives us to our final extension of our leadership mantra. It is not enough for leadership alone to “think the thought, talk the talk, and walk the walk”, great leaders empower everyone to do it. In other words:

Great leaders achieve a higher purpose by empowering everyone to think the thought, talk the talk, and walk the walk.

When leaders accomplish this it creates a collective intelligence that enables the organization to acquire and apply the knowledge and skills to achieve a higher purpose that is beyond the reach of any individual. This is the leader’s perspective on the HOW. The HOW isn’t today’s fleeting secret sauce, the HOW is the enduring collective intelligence that will produce a lasting competitive advantage.

So as a leader what is your organization’s higher purpose? In what mental models, analogies, metaphors, and language will you embody this higher purpose? How will you make those thoughts front-and-center in everyone’s mind? What policies and practices will you implement to enable everyone to talk and walk consistent with the thoughts that embody the organization’s higher purpose? When you’ve done all of this, what will be the acceptable behavior patterns that characterize your culture and will they enable you to achieve the higher purpose you set out?

Author: Gary Markovits – gary@innovationbp.com

 

[1] “The Analogical Mind – Perspectives from Cognitive Science”, edited by Dedre Gentner et al, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001

[2] All aphorisms or quotes are from BrainyQuote® or The Forbes Magazine collection of the one hundred best quotes on leadership

[3] For an in depth treatment of how metaphor and analogy guide our thinking and actions see “Metaphors We Live By”, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1980.

[4]The Scaffolding of Rhetoric”, Winston Churchill, November 1897

[5] “Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders, the Penguin Group, 2009.

[6] TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization

[7] “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” by Leon Festinger, 1962.

[8] “Start with Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”, by Simon Sinek and his TED video “How great leaders inspire action

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