Don’t Quote Me, Part II

This is the second of a two-part series on quotes. Today we look at a few leadership quotes that aren’t as great as they might first appear.

I’ve read Mere Christianity at least three times, and, yes, I’m a fan of almost all things C.S. Lewis. I’m also a habitual collector of quotes. That’s why it was disappointing to discover I had been misquoting the famous author.

The quote in question – “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less” – is actually by Rick Warren, and I’ve read the book in which he wrote that line (The Purpose Drive Life, Page 339, although it’s worded slightly different). Yet, somewhere along the way I saw it attributed to Mere Christianity, and I began repeating the error. Such is the danger of sourcing quotes in a Google-driven world (see last week’s blog for more on this).

Accurately sourcing quotes is just one of the challenges we face in a world full of oft-repeated quotes. What’s even more important is whether the quotes offer wisdom, regardless of their source. I’ve found that not all quotes are created equal, especially quotes on leadership. Some quotes, like Warren’s line about humility, are rock-solid, foundational axioms upon which you can build your life and leadership. (Exhibit B: “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright) Others, however, are dangerous because they are sort of true, which, of course, makes them sort of false. And you don’t want to build your life or your leadership around something that’s the slightest bit false.

So, with that in mind, here are five common sayings regarding leadership that need a critical eye before you fully adopt them.

  1. It’s all relative.

This is one of those convenient sayings that’s not really attributed to anyone in particular but that comes up frequently when people want to get out of an argument without admitting defeat. It contains just enough truth to get us through because, in fact, some things are relative.

Noted genius Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about relativity, explained it this way: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

But just because some things are relative doesn’t mean that all things are relative. Strong leaders know that compromise is essential, but compromising on truth is fatal. They know that relativity never trumps truth.

Abraham Lincoln made this point nicely with this short quiz: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four – calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

  1. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

This is another great saying that you probably first heard from dear old mom or dad when you applied lackluster effort to some simple chore around the house. It makes great sense and it gives you a worthy goal of doing great work. But progress often comes by trying and failing. If you only do things you can do well, you end up avoiding a great many things that would make you better. So, the best leaders push themselves and their teams toward perfection, but offer grace – to themselves, as well as to others – when failure gets in the way.

Steven Sample, the former president of the University of Southern California, explained it like this in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing poorly. It may be worth more if it’s done well, but it’s worth something if it’s done poorly.”

  1. There are no stupid questions.

Seriously? Of course there are.

But it’s unlikely that you are stupid or that you work with stupid people. More likely, you (or them) are underinformed. If that’s the case, get to the root of the issue. Why are people asking poor questions? There’s probably a problem with your culture, your systems or your processes – or all three.

  1. There are no leadership experts, only experts on their own leadership.

The first time I heard this, I loved it. It felt so counterintuitively on target.

Then I slept. Morning brought clarity.

Yes, leadership experts write and speak and consult from their own experiences. They have biases. But that’s true of all of life. You don’t have to lead with a certain style, however, to become an expert on how that style works. In fact, you’ll benefit if you become an expert on as many leadership styles as possible.

A friend and I wrote a book about grit, which we defined as passionate perseverance toward a goal. We’re experts on our own grit (and lack thereof), but we also did research to become more informed about what grit looks like in anyone. We leaned heavily on another researcher’s work. That researcher is an expert on grit – and not just her grit. And she helped us elevate our understanding.

What’s important is that we each become experts when it comes to our personal leadership style. We can learn from all the experts to help us figure out how we can best lead, and then we can own that style. If we get really good at it, we can write our own book.

  1. We learn more from our failures than our successes.

There are plenty of variations on this.

Actress/activist Jane Fonda said, “You don’t learn from successes; you don’t learn from awards; you don’t learn from celebrity; you only learn from wounds and scars and mistakes and failures. And that’s the truth.”

In its review of The Wisdom of Failure by Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey, businessinsider.com used this headline: “You Can Learn More From Failure Than Success.”

Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author, said, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.”

Or go with economist Kenneth Boulding: “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.”

There’s no doubting the value of learning from our failures; indeed, they have very little value if we don’t learn from them. The fault lies in making the statement absolute with words like “more from” or “only.”

The truth is, we can learn just as much from our successes as our failures. We often learn more from our failures simply because we spend more time analyzing them, while we only celebrate our successes. If we spent as much time thinking about what we did to succeed, we’d likely learn a great deal.

Don’t Quote Me

This is the first of a two-part series on quotes. Today we look at the dark side of collecting quotes.

There’s no empirical evidence to support this claim, but some believe that a guy named Adam holds the distinction of being the first human to start a collection of things.

Adam, as the story goes, lived in the way-back times – like “in the beginning.” And as a side benefit to being the first man on the planet, he got to name all the animals. So, he collected and named them.

“Fuzzy little critter with a fluffy tail eating a nut? I’ll call you a squirrel. Next …”

Since that time, people have been obsessed with collecting things – big things like land or even countries, small things like stamps, rare things like old coins, expensive things like fine art, and weird things like Christmas villages.

Me, I collect quotes.

I know what you’re thinking – “You can’t sell those on eBay.” And you’re right. Quotes don’t bring much on the open market. You aren’t going to retire off what you make from the shoebox full of them in your parents’ attic (although there was one fella who wrote a book based on just such a shoebox).

Still, I like quotes – quotes from movies and books and speeches and articles and historical texts – so I collect them. I keep most of them in Word documents arranged in folders on my computer. I have an entire document, for instance, just for quotes by comedian Steven Wright. (I suspect you’re suddenly thinking that collecting Christmas villages isn’t so strange.)

I’m not the world’s only quote-aholic, however – far from it. There are plenty of us out there, as evidenced by all the places to find quotes on any topic online. Dozens of sites are devoted to it. You can buy books of quotes. There’s no shortage of them in framed photos with eagles and mountains in the background. And you can flip open almost any nonfiction book (and some fiction books) and find quotes at the start of each chapter. Or go to any presentation by a speaker or corporate trainer, and you’ll no doubt see quotes scattered throughout their mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations.

Quotes on leadership – and most quotes relate somehow to leadership – are particularly popular.

In short, if you’re gonna collect something, quotes are a low-budget option with a high utilitarian value.

Ah, but quotes have their dark side. Yes, they do.

For starters, we’ve become overly dependent upon them, especially in business. We live in a world where original ideas are scarce, so we lean on the quotes of others to express our ideas for us. Rather than push ourselves toward a little creativity, we hit the easy button: Google me up a quote!

Another problem with quotes is that they can make fibbers of us because, news flash, Google isn’t perfect. The liars and the lazy roam the Internet like gnats, and they mix with the incompetent to infect the entire system with a truth-killing virus that spreads like a plague.

Yes, that description is a bit heavy, but I didn’t edit it out of this blog because, well, I really liked it. Feel free to quote me on it. But remember this: when “sourcing” a quote, a quick Google search is a sure way to bad attribution. So, make sure I’m the one who really said it.

Next week, Part II: Why the best advice on leadership sometimes isn’t so good after all.