“The quietest thing in the world is a worm chewing peanut butter.”
I love this line from Judi Barrett’s book, “Things That Are Most in the World.” There is something especially delightful about this sentence. It is reassuring and ridiculous all at the same time. It feels great to know exactly what is the most quiet thing in the world! Doesn’t it? I love that kind of certainty. It allows me to just keep skipping along, whistling my tune. But then, she adds the part about the worm, and the needle on my tune makes a scratching sound as it’s stopped. What sound does a worm chewing peanut butter actually make?! This quick change in feeling, from the calm certainty brings, to the confusion absurdity brings, is one I want to ponder as it pertains to leadership. I think “Things That Are Most in the World” can be read as a cautionary tale, encouraging us to examine whether we use too many superlatives to describe our leaders. Have you ever used phrases like…
She’s the most demanding boss in the world!
He’s the most micro-managing boss ever!
When I left a leadership position from a large non-profit, my team gave me a gift I loved – a white coffee cup with a not-so-kind statement about the sitting president, written in large black san-serif type. The cup’s saying succinctly captured my sentiments. (I’ll let you use your imagination.) It was 2005 and everyone who has ever worked with me knows I like to talk politics. If you were to ask me about my feelings regarding this particular leader, I would have said something like, “He will go down as the worst president in our country’s history! The worst!” But then, just a few weeks ago, I read an article about this president that brought tears to my eyes because of his compassion toward a soldier he sent to war. I felt empathy, for the first time, for a president who faced a wounded soldier, whose life was forever changed by the decisions he set upon the world. The story included very specific details about the president’s visit with this soldier. By reading about this very intimate exchange, his humanity was revealed to me for the first time, he was no longer the worst, the most. This change in feeling does not necessarily change my feelings about his policy decisions, but it will change the manner in which I speak of him. I realize that by speaking in superlatives I imbue a leader with supernatural powers, god-like powers, other than human powers. And that is truly absurd.
“The hottest thing in the world is a dragon eating chili peppers.”
This change in feeling inspired me to look for examples of leaders who are described as the most. Which brought me to the recent reporting on Theranos, a health information laboratory. Theranos’ leader, Elizabeth Holmes, inspired Fortune magazine to lift her up as the most. Fortune not only spoke of her in superlatives but also put her on a 2014 cover. Then, two years later, they published a piece titled, “After the Theranos Mess, Can We Finally Quit Idolizing Entrepreneurs?” Yes, they used “idolize” and defined it as, “to worship as a god; to love or admire to excess.” Holmes, a dropout from Stanford at 19, amassed $400 million from investors and created a company valued at $9 billion. She also amassed names from the most illustrious corners of leadership. She attracted Henry Kissinger to her list of “counselors”. When Kissinger was asked to assess her as a leader he said, “I can’t compare her to anyone else because I haven’t seen anyone with her special attributes.” Each of the early articles about Holmes seemed to copy the others, all speaking in superlatives about her vision. No one seemed to have another story to tell. Well, you can read the story yourself about her fall, needless to say, it was a long way down. The most.
“The silliest thing in the world is a chicken in a frog costume.”
As the Fortune article points out, “this idol-worshipping culture is teaching a generation of up-and-comers that the prize of business is fleeting fame, not long-term success.” When we hear a story about a leader that is filled with superlatives, does that make them a bad leader? Not necessarily, I think the warning of Judi Barrett’s book is to be on the look out for absurd tales. Which brings me to one about my dad.
My dad, E. Lowell Rogers, was a leader of music education in Glendale, Arizona. The city council of Glendale just named the amphitheater in downtown Glendale after him. I’m very proud to call such an honored leader my dad. When I returned to Glendale to attend the ceremony and concert for the naming, I heard one of the oft-told tales about him. It was about the time he was conducting a middle school district band that included the best talent from eight schools. During the rehearsal of a number requiring a bass-drum beat, my dad stopped the band at the section where the bass drum should have been heard, but instead there was no sound coming from that section. My dad asked the student on the drum, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you playing the drum?” The student answered, “I can’t find the mallet.” My dad would reply, “Find something, anything, just hit the drum.” Well, the third time this happened, my dad took off his shoe and threw it over the heads of those in the band to the kid (at the kid?) and said, “Here, use this!” This story is well known and told by many, both by those who were there that day and others who have heard the story since. I was actually at that rehearsal and it is a story about his leadership that tends toward the most – a funny absurd tale. In part, the story was true. He could be the most demanding conductor. Now, if you were to ask around about my dad’s leadership, would everyone tell similar stories about how he could be the most demanding conductor?
“The wiggliest thing in the world is a snake ice skating.”
My dad started an adult community band and conducted that band for 25 years. High school kids where allowed to play if they came with a parent or an adult who was in the band. I loved to hang around the adult musicians, so I began playing once I was in high school. One evening as the band was setting up for rehearsal a women came in clutching her clarinet case. She said she wanted to play but she hadn’t taken down her horn for over 30 years and wasn’t sure she was good enough. My dad, in his usual humor, asked her, “Do you remember how to put it together?” She chuckled and said, “Yes, I think so.” He said, “Then, you’re ready. Even if you only play every sixth note, you’ll be fine. Take a seat anywhere you’re comfortable and try and hit the notes the best you can. Welcome.” She laughed, relaxed a bit, and found a seat.
This story certainly doesn’t make him sound like the most demanding conductor. It even makes you wonder what kind of standards he had if he was open to accepting anyone and everyone. My dad loved community and he loved music. The community band, for him, was a testament to both. If an adult musician had the courage to walk through the doors of the band room, then they were welcome. This band grew over the years, but always included professional musicians as well as those dusting off their horn. If a musician didn’t think they could play well enough, it was their decision to leave or stay. It was a community band, not the symphony. He understood context, he lead based on values, he made choices based on the greater good. He respected those who would give of their time and talent to follow his baton. This story makes him seem like he was the most accepting conductor in the world!
He built music programs celebrating the best of student performance and held community park concerts celebrating the joy of music. He achieved these long-term goals by being both a demanding conductor of students and an accepting conductor of community. Two different stories.
If you are following a leader who is the most then ask around and listen. Are all the stories similar? Does the language being used to describe the leader idolize or vilify them? Do the assertions sound a bit absurd? If all the stories you hear tend toward a caricature of a leader, then dig deeper. If you still don’t hear stories that paint different pictures of the leader you are following, then run for the hills, find a new path, beware!
I hope you will hear and tell stories about leaders who are authentic, stories that speak to a leader’s specific character and values, a leader willing to succeed and fail, a leader with humor and compassion, a leader who is willing to bare their humanity for all to see. If you hear of such a leader, then you have found…
a most amazing leader in the world.