jeff meyers blog

Organizing Genius

Walt Disney once told the following story:

I was stumped one day when a little boy asked me, “Do you draw Mickey Mouse?”   I had to admit that I don’t draw anymore.  “Then do you think up all the jokes and ideas?”  “No,” I said, “I don’t do that.”  Finally, the little boy looked at me and said, “Mr. Disney, just what do you do?”  “Well”, I said, “Sometimes I think of myself as a little bee.  I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody.” 

I guess that’s the job that I do.  I certainly don’t consider myself a businessman, and I never did believe I was worth anything as an artist.

organizing geniusI read this story in the book Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.  The book is about great groups and explores what made some of the most famous groups in American history so successful.  Lots of good stuff on how effective groups work, but for me, the most interesting takeaways were the insights on leadership.  Great groups, the authors contend, only really work if they have great leadership.  So, what I’ll write about in this blog is less about groups, and more about what makes effective leaders.

Early in the book, the authors share what they believe to be the leadership characteristics that make the individuals showcased in the book special.  In particular, they shared how one business leader described his role as follows: “Look, I only have three things to do.  I have to choose the right people, allocate the right number of dollars, and transmit ideas from one division to another with lightning speed.”   The rest of the book really ended up fleshing out these core ideas.  So here are some highlights from my perspective.

First, leaders need to have a keen eye for talent.  Just like high-level sports coaches, as a leader you can have the best strategy in the world, be the best tactician, but without talent to implement it, you won’t get very far.  The most successful leaders surround themselves with great talent, they don’t try to be superhuman and do everything themselves.  According to the authors, leaders who are good at spotting top talent focus on two things: excellence and the ability to work with others.  In other words, leaders need to have individual talent and put that talent to use, but they also need to have strong people skills.  Strong leaders are unafraid of hiring people better than themselves.  They’re secure enough to know that they’ll do better if they bring people even more talented than themselves around them.  So not only is recruiting the right people the key to building great groups, it’s the key to building great organizations in general. 

Next, leadership is most often not about choosing right from wrong (except in the area of values).  This insight was particularly interesting to me because I tend to want to pursue every good idea that comes along.  The problem with this is that this creates a lack of focus and dilutes the resources available for the best ideas.  As leaders, what we need to do is look at a number of good ideas and then make the hard decision as to which idea or ideas are most deserving of receiving resources.  For sure, the hardest thing about this is rejecting ideas that seem good, but that will ultimately take resources away from the best ideas.  These are the tough decisions leaders need to make.

Finally, the idea of transmitting ideas from one part of the organization to another with the speed of light.  This is basically what Walt Disney was getting at in the story at the beginning of this blog where he described himself going from one studio to another dispersing pollen.  In a smaller organization, sometimes a leader can get by with having all the good ideas coming from him or her.  However, as organizations grow, one of the most important jobs of the leader becomes “greasing the skids”, communicating ideas quickly and broadly, and then enabling others to take those good ideas and flesh them out.  The leader disseminates ideas as quickly as possible, and then acts as “the straw that stirs the drink” in getting people to work together on those ideas.  The leader spends more time stimulating the thinking of her people, and less time trying to impress everyone with all of her good ideas.

The last thing that caught my attention in this book was the following statement: “Leaders…are purveyors of hope, not necessarily voices of reason.”  Although as leaders we have to be believable, people will give the most, and be at their best, if we stir their sense of hope, show them the purpose and dream behind what we’re trying to accomplish.  Our natural tendency is often to try to communicate things in the most reasonable manner possible.  Don’t overstate things, we think, keep things manageable.  Doing this isn’t necessarily wrong, but providing hope and inspiring people is ultimately what leads people to extraordinary efforts and results, even if it pushes us out of our comfort zone.

As we begin this new year, I reflect on how these ideas can make me a better leader.  Some come naturally to me, others don’t.  But as leaders, improving ourselves in these areas is probably the greatest service we can do to our organizations.  I hope at least one of these ideas can help you in 2021.

 

           

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"In the hardwood lumber industry, we can think of what we do as cutting logs and processing boards, or instead we can see our work as rearranging the raw materials of creation (trees) into useful products (chairs, tables, cabinets, floors) that help people to live better and more productively.

For me, viewing our work as rearrainging creation's raw materials is more motivating and inspiring, and brings dignity and meaning to all kinds of work."

Jeff Meyer

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