“In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice – in practice there is.”
– Yogi Berra
There’s some doubt as to whether the legendary New York Yankees player and manager Yogi Berra ever actually uttered the immortal words above but there’s certainly no doubt as to their veracity.
We’ve probably all met someone who talked a good game from the bleachers or behind the bar but who fell to pieces once they stepped out onto the field. Knowing about a thing is a long, long way from being able to do a thing.
In many areas of life of course, this distinction manifests itself as little more than harmless bluster. We can all pick apart the finer points of our favourite sport stars’ weekend performance without anyone seriously thinking we’re suggesting we’d do any better. The line between analysis and capability is drawn very firmly when it comes to fandom of any kind. This article provides some ideas to how you can walk the leadership talk.
Things tend to get a little trickier when it comes to business matters however.
There are whole areas of professional life where the mere idea of anybody confusing a casual – or even deep – knowledge of a subject with the ability to actually perform a specific task would be anathema.
If you’re going in for open-heart surgery, you don’t want a surgeon who’s simply read all the books about how blood is pumped around the body. You want somebody with verifiable practical expertise in carrying out the specific task at hand. Fine words, as the old saying goes, butter no parsnips. In many scenarios, words are simply not enough.
To take a less dramatic example, if your kitchen sink suddenly transforms into an unstoppable, spewing geyser, you don’t need a long speech from the plumber about the intricacies of water pressure and subterranean sediment layers, you need someone to get in there with a wrench and get things done.
The contemporary office, on the other hand, is a very different kettle of fish. There is something about the modern working environment that makes it horribly easy for surface knowledge of a subject to be confused with actual practical expertise.
Maybe it’s the incredibly fast rate of change in some areas. In software development for example, new technologies are arriving literally every month so you could be forgiven for taking solid theoretical knowledge as a good indicator of real-world skill in many cases.
For all the dizzying rush of new techniques and technologies though, the fundamentals of business have stayed more or less the same for a considerable amount of time. Given a little time to get up to speed, a set of merchant princes from the days of yore would not have that much trouble wrapping their head around the concept of eCommerce I think.
Here’s our theory – with the inexorable rise of meetings, presentations, emails and “brainstorming sessions”, people are spending more and more time talking about work and less and less time actually doing it. In fact, as more and more people classify themselves as “knowledge workers”, you could argue that the “talking about work” part is an increasingly important skill in itself.
This is not to put down the value of communication or pooh-pooh the idea of thrashing certain things out. These are certainly essential things to have in your toolbox.
The risk in the modern working environment though is that there is an awful lot of room for two specific things to happen:
- Bluffers have ample room for manoeuvre in a huge variety of white-collar jobs. By the time their hand is called they’ve often sailed gaily on to the next project with a large cheque in their pocket.
- It’s increasingly easy for people of all experience levels to mistake knowledge of a subject with the ability to actually execute on it in any meaningful way.
These two trends tend to be particularly rife the higher up the org chart you go. The average tenure of a Chief Marketing Officer is around 40 months. The average tenure of Fortune 500 CEO is 4.6 years. How many of these people are truly walking the talk you have to wonder? How much of this is simply all hat, no cattle?
Anyone who’s ever worked in a company with over 100 employees has probably already seen the archetypal example of this in practice at least once: the arrival of either expensive external consultants or freshly-minted MBAs into an organisation to take up leadership roles. In many cases the expensive external consultants are freshly-minted MBAs.
Now there is a time and a place for external consultants, and there are certainly any number of excellent MBA programmes out there, but the horror stories of people mistaking book learning for actionable experience in a business context are legion. There is simply no substitute for somebody who truly knows the score and who has performed the task before.
This is nowhere more important than when it comes to leadership. The average business is an inherently chaotic environment and the list of unknown unknowns every company faces on a daily basis is huge. Against this type of dynamic background, you simply can’t afford to have people in leadership roles who are married to the beauty of theory rather than the true reality of the ever-shifting situation at hand.
If you are in a leadership role yourself, you need to be rigorously honest with yourself in this regard. Rather than assuming that your knowledge of a particular area makes you an expert in its execution, it’s your job to find the people who actually excel at performing whatever the task is and making it as easy as possible for them to do their job.
When it comes to assessing your own skills, make sure you’re judging yourself on what you actually accomplish rather than what you simply understand. The latter is a precious gift and will be of increasing use to you as your career progresses but you need to maintain that clear distinction in your mind at all times to avoid the perils of hubris and over-reach.
Leverage your actual abilities when it comes to action and use your wider knowledge for analysis and improvement and you’ll soon find yourself walking the talk rather than sniping from the sidelines or inadvertently biting off more than you can chew.