Beware of fortune cookie wisdom

This morning we woke to about 5 cm of extremely light and fluffy snow. I barely had my first cup of coffee in hand when our neighbour cranked up his obnoxious snow blower. Why use a slingshot when you can fire a cannon? This is the same guy who employs a leaf blower to clean his eaves troughs. The same guy who talks the big game about all he’s going to do to cash in on the gentrification in our little neighbourhood, yet his house hasn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in a decade. In short, he’s our very own neighbourhood blowhard.

I don’t claim to be an expert on leadership, but I know a blowhard when I hear one. And after 15+ years as a communicator, I remain astounded by how many actually head up teams. You know the blowhard – s/he is the one full of what my compatriot Keith calls “fortune cookie wisdom” – pithy little phrases of inspiration, like those motivational posters from the 1990s, that are rarely, if ever, followed by any concrete or meaningful action on the part of the leader. S/he leaves it to others to deliver. I’m fine with that, but don’t say you’re the guy who turns around businesses, only to expect others to turn around your business for you.

What we need in times of change are motivators, not bloviators. Motivators have a plan, inspire their folks to line up behind it, and get into the trenches and lead, clearing the roadblocks and doing some of the heavy lifting themselves. They inspire the rest of us to get our hands dirty, to get in and make a difference. That’s what Shackleton, everybody’s favourite mythic leader, did. Bloviators are glib; heavy with words, light on action. They might talk like leaders, but they don’t actually lead. And sadly, they often quote Shackleton while they’re not leading!

If you need to inspire people to change, be prepared to weather it yourself. More people are motivated by doers than sayers. Even if you’re not the greatest speaker, if you can show people you have a plan and a heart and dig in yourself, 9 times out of 10, they’ll rally to get you to bright. If your preference, though, is to swing a cudgel while shouting “skate to where the puck is,” “be the future,” “change is no excuse for mistakes” or other cold and meaningless phrases, you’ll likely be disappointed by the results.


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