Why Is It So Hard?

Jan. 7, 2017

rubiks cube
In an executive education program I recently led, an executive welcomed people and asked for a show of hands: “How many people know what it takes to be healthy… to eat well and exercise properly?”  Most hands went up.  Then he asked how many people actually do this on a regular basis?  Only one or two hands went up.  His point was that most of us know what it takes to be healthy, but far fewer of us do this on a regular basis.  With an abundance of low-cost, tasty junk food and sedentary jobs, most Americans find it hard to maintain a truly healthy lifestyle.  Knowing what it takes is easy.  Doing it regularly is hard.  This executive’s point was not to prompt a self-examination of lifestyle choices, but rather to suggest that leadership is very similar.

The principles of effective leadership are neither mysterious nor awe inspiring.  When you read a book or hear a lecture on leadership, I bet you feel a lot of the basic ideas are common sense.  This is not to say there are not great books (or lectures!) on leadership, rather when we really think about the fundamental concepts, they make sense.  Knowing effective leadership is not very hard.  On the other hand, consistently demonstrating effective leadership is very hard.

An effective leader I know and respect sent out an email of congratulations.  In the message, he inadvertently offended the people he was congratulating.  Why did he do this?  Why didn’t he see the immediate affront of his message?

Do you remember trying to solve those Rubik’s Cube puzzles?  Different squares of different colors that need to be lined up so that each color is only on one side.  By twisting and turning you move the little color tiles around.  Getting one side green is very easy, but the other sides end up a mess.  Fix the red side so it is all the same color and the green side becomes a mess.  Did you ever solve it on all six sides?

I think this is what happened when the leader sent out the congratulatory email.  He looks at the one side and it looked good.  Send message.  Unfortunately, the rest of the Rubik’s Cube was a mess.

I recently had the opportunity to be working with a company when it announced its new name and branding logo.  Aside from a few people in the corporate head office, everyone has been kept in the dark about the new branding.  The goal was clearly to generate excitement and enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, when the announcement was made on the streaming video, the entire room sat in silence for a good 10 seconds.  Was that the new name?  Really?!?  The general manager got up and tried to lead a discussion with the 25 managers in the room about the new name and logo, but was so perplexed he wasn’t sure what to say.  Two days later, he and his other executives had a wonderful “spin” on the new name, but at the time it just fell flat.  Why hadn’t the company given the executive team a heads up on the new name so they could have been better prepared for this much anticipated moment?  I think they were only looking at one side of the Rubik’s Cube.

Part of what makes effective leadership difficult is that it looks so easy.  It is not unusual to hear undergraduate students talking about how easy their leadership classes are.  They see the concepts as obvious or easily absorbed.  Nothing like accounting or finance.  Executive MBA students, with 10-15 years of work and management experience, have a very different outlook on these classes.  They have struggled with leadership challenges for years and are yearning for answers.  They engage in nuanced discussions of trying to solve the leadership Rubik’s Cube on all six sides.

Just like the Rubik’s Cube, there are some tips and techniques that can help leaders be more successful. But like fitness and healthy eating, it is hard to consistently apply the principles and to anticipate all the unintended consequences.  Practice helps.  By seeking feedback and engaging in self-reflection we can learn to see the other sides of the Rubik’s Cube before we mess them up.  And like the Rubik’s Cube, leadership can be a source of endless challenge and satisfaction.