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Silver Bullets, Heroic Leadership and other Myths . . .


Two pieces echoed in my head this week, after a number of conversations about our everlasting love affair with the “silver bullets” that we crave to solve problems or create value in one stroke.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are people and organisations, today, putting in the hard yards to make genuine progress.

The renowned surgeon and public health researcher, Atul Gawande, famously wrote;

“We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right – one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.”

And that is in the field of medicine, no stranger to “silver bullet” hopes . . .

How about in our world?

Tom Goodwin and Steve Hearsum made some interesting points on this topic in the past few days.

“As individuals people always seem amazing, but put them together into a committee, department, or business, and somehow it just seems to go wrong.” . . .

People can be really smart, experienced and motivated, but do a lot of really quite stupid things. 😉

Steve suggests that leaders need to start getting comfortable with the idea that there may be no obvious answer to complex problems.

He describes “lazy thinking” and the ‘myth of fixability’ in ‘n step’ models of change or “oversimplified gobbets of wisdom from ‘thought leaders’ – best exemplified by the two line couplet of ‘if a leader does X, their people will Y’”.

“There is a plethora of psychological factors that underpin the need for certainty, and thus the allure of silver bullets. These include:

  • Expectations – of leaders, followers, shareholders and other stakeholders . . 
  • Pace – the need for speed
  • Stereotypes of ‘heroic leadership’ 
  • Laziness – rather than the hard, uncomfortable work of stopping and thinking
  • Fear and anxiety – of failure; of ‘not knowing’; of being held accountable; of simply bringing oneself to work; even shame
  • The need to please
  • Displacement – the need to make someone – or something – else responsible for something that may not work.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that ‘lightening the load’ is ultimately dependent on the work that leaders do to develop their capacity to work in the mess.

Tom also suggests we would be better off if we focused our energies on;

1) How to make small changes to build organizational change muscles.

2) Reducing complexity and making things simple

3) How to stop doing dumb stuff.

4) How to focus on what actually matters.

5) How to really measure what matters.

As technology allows us to do more and more stuff, let’s use it to focus on simplicity.

These thoughts make a lot of sense. It is worth a read of Tom Goodwin’s brief observational post here . . .   and Steve Hearson’s article “Why we need to turn our back on ‘silver bullet’ solutions” in Management Today here . . . 

Food for thought!

Thanks for reading . . . .