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Suitcase Words, Hollow Men, and Authority Baiting: Toward Greater Creative Business Leadership Literacy
If leadership can be re-cast ‘as a creative act’ for which both leaders and followers partake in lifelong learning, as Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman proposes in The End of Leadership, a great opportunity exists to translate that learning into social and market advantage. Yet at a time when information about transforming leadership and businesses is so readily available, much of the discussion around it is mired in superficial understanding, repetitive approaches, and exaggerated claims. In fact, as I’ve written previously, an ‘innovation-industrial complex’ of consultants, educators, trainers, and commentators has emerged in part because of – and to exploit – the proliferation of information about creativity and innovation in business and management and the concurrent destabilization of standards for that information and related expertise. In an effort to move toward better assessments of the competence and capability of those working in these areas and to make interactions around them more robust, we would benefit from cultivating greater general literacy in creative business leadership. The following post begins to do so by identifying some of the common pitfalls and weaknesses, as well as offering practical steps that can be taken to redress them.
Marvin Minsky has written about ‘suitcase words.’ Using examples like ‘consciousness’, ‘emotions,’ ‘memory,’ ‘thinking,’ and ‘intelligence,’ the MIT Media Lab professor observes that a ‘suitcase word’ ‘means nothing by itself, but holds a bunch of things inside that you have to unpack.’ He saw the need to unpack and analyze each word in order for it to be understood fully. They are not precisely buzzwords, those technical terms or euphemisms shorn of precise meaning through hype and overuse, or jargon; the specialized vocabulary used and understood in specific contexts like given industries. Suitcase words are different in that they often contain multiple and expanding meanings across disparate contexts. They can obfuscate as much as they clarify.
Consider ‘creativity,’ leadership,’ ‘data,’ and ‘digital.’ Or, look at arguably the single most-used – and explicated – word in the Berlin School Global Executive MBA program which I direct: ‘Value.’ It needs to be repeatedly unpacked across disciplines. In leadership courses, it can refer to the beliefs and principles of an individual, team, or organization. In strategy, the benefits exchanged with clients or customers. In finance, the monetary, material, or assessed worth of an asset or firm. Eric Almquist of Bain & Company consultancy has outlined 30 different elements of consumer value. That kind of unpacking, undertaken for specific situations, is too often neglected in many discussions of creating or delivering ‘value.’ That profusion of possible interpretations is where the potential problem emerges. Speakers can use the intrinsic ambiguity of suitcase words tactically, not to suss out meanings collaboratively but to rely on generic concerns as the basis of superficial agreement.
My proposal here is not to avoid complicated words or phrases that function as helpful shorthand or bases for productive dialogue in business or educational interactions. On the contrary, the point is that by using these common words more precisely, we can gain advantage in a competitive marketplace or enable deeper learning. Even more, since these capacious words or phrases allow for flexible interpretations and ultimately for listeners to project their own meanings into discussions of them, we do well to question their usage more regularly. If greater ‘creative leadership’ capabilities or ‘digital transformation’ opportunities are pitched, for example, how do we interrogate them? Rather than assuming common understanding, how can collaborators better unpack what those terms mean for specific situations and contexts?
Most of us are familiar with the ‘straw man.’ This form of argumentation relies on intentionally misrepresenting an opponent’s position in order to deprive it of substance and refute it more easily. A variant on the classical straw man, for philosophers Scott Aikin and John Casey, is the hollow man, which ‘consists in fabricating an imaginary opponent with an imaginary and impossibly weak argument, and then defeating the argument.’ The misrepresentation, that is, turns on both the oversimplification of the opponent’s position andan exaggeration of its weaknesses. We might refine the difference from the straw man further to note that the hollow man’s intentionally misrepresented weakness is often a lack not only of substance but of integrity as well. With its unavoidable poetic allusion, the further association of ‘hollow men’ can suggest a figure’s moral inferiority, lack of humanity, and even spiritual emptiness.
The ‘hollow man’ can arise in different approaches to leadership. Take the example of the broad distinction in leadership teaching and consulting between more theoretical and real-life approaches. Many popular accounts and discussions of leaders yoke together individual beliefs and traits, social behaviors, and moral vision. The resulting models lend some of the predictability we seek in leaders by projecting normative types – servant leaders, authentic leaders, positive and emotionally intelligent leaders – that lend coherence to our perceptions of and interactions with leaders. At the same time, more heterodox researchers like Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stanislav Shekshnia, contrast these norms and ideal types with what they examine in actual situations and conditions. Stanford Professor Pfeffer (in his book, Leadership B.S.) observes that, ‘If we want to change the world of work and leadership conduct in many workplaces, we need to act on what we know rather than what we wish and hope for.’
Critics can either oversimplify idealistic and normative models of leadership or misrepresent successful specific practices and competencies of individual leaders as random. In the process, they exaggerate either the real-world weaknesses of theoretical origins or the lack of generalizability of specific personalities and conditions. The motivation of some trainers, consultants, or teachers in doing so is to differentiate their ideas or offers by claiming to overcome the weaknesses – be they idealized models or experiential practices – that exist elsewhere in the leadership development marketplace. Such a contrast can gain ready if superficial traction when discussing creativebusiness leadership and, for example, comparing accountants or engineers or traditional, suit-wearing managers with more creatively-oriented leaders or entrepreneurs.
Thomas Chesney’s resonant phrase, used in his study of YouTube videos that question an authoritative figure or institution, captures well a frequent tactic used to differentiate a leadership or creative business development offering. Rather than staking out one’s own position in depth and detail, the alternative is set up in contrast – indeed, often in explicit, dramatic opposition – to a caricatured view of a familiar perspective or institution. Authority here can take many forms. Oftentimes, and related to the straw man or hollow man, it is a roughly drawn general business priority or industry tradition against which contemporary creative leaders and businesses differentiate themselves. Frederick Winslow Taylor probably remains the greatest single authority to identify and oppose in defining oneself or one’s offer. For many ‘creative’ leaders and businesses today, legitimating heterodoxy and humanistic bona fides turns on setting up and rejecting an updated variation on scientific management, notably including the evidence-based and efficiency-focused analyses of traditional management consultancies.
My point is not to blindly defend champions of efficiency or empiricism – in fact, conversely, it is to call to account those who reflexively disparage or categorically dismiss these traditions of business and social life. It is to recognize the persisting relevance of disciplined and evidence-based activities even as we productively prioritize and pursue more open, creatively-driven, and entrepreneurial opportunities for change. Again, the issue becomes one of acknowledging and avoiding simplistic assertions about how leaders can or should collaborate with others, develop markets, new technologies, or worlds of work today and in the future. The hard work of creative business leadership is not formulating a vision for a more ideal future of work, organizations, or learning; the challenge (and opportunity) is to make decisions and take actions that enable these visions and aspirations to be realized amidst the complexities of the real world.
The disparagement of disciplined approaches to advancing leadership and building businesses can also relate to the more far-reaching specter of our living and working in a post-truth era. The democratic and human aspirations of creative businesses and leadership are frequently guided by a contrarian impulse that is anti-authority or, at least, anti-academic. As I put it in an earlier post, facile provocations to ‘fight the power’ often treat individuals, organizations, or models as out-of-touch traditionalists. Instead, they locate legitimacy in either general human understanding and everyday industry experience or emergent technologies and prospective futures. And relevant to my specific call here to become more literate about creative business leadership, the critique is that we no longer have time to define our terms and formulate elaborate models in a world today defined by speed, uncertainty, and fluid meanings.
On the contrary, I would contend that moving quickly to examine words, practices, and ideas about leadership – much like experimenting with and validating business ideas – by gathering evidence and testing their relevance for specific situations is exactly the imperative here. Greater literacy in the topics of business creativity, leadership, and digital transformation, particularly for the cottage industry of consultants, trainers, and educators that has grown up around them, offers a valuable opportunity. It would allow us to overcome some of the tendencies toward simplification, fabrication, and reflexive contrarianism we have sketched here as well as the various biases or shortcuts – what University of Utah researcher Bryan Bonner calls ‘proxies of expertise’ – that too often validate intuitively-appealing but inconsequential approaches. To do so could also produce more thoughtful, disciplined, or demonstrated general understanding of leadership development and creative business change.
Here are several initial suggestions for improving the coherent understanding, interpretive competence, and behaviors – a broad view of literacy – concerning creative business leadership education and consulting marketplaces:
- Acknowledge the diversity of problems and approaches. Beware the silver bullet– or, oftentimes, the sexy business solution – that claims to solve a singular problem. What are the different patterns and alternative approaches? We should ask what Elon Musk would do in a given situation – but then also be sure to ask skeptically whether that response has any relevance to our own situations.
- Conduct and cite ‘research’ to further, not end, conversations. Thoughtful, disciplined, and evidence-based research should inform our decision-making. Too often, uttering the word ‘research’ has an incantatory effect, stifling discussion and conferring authority to a given position. Besides outcomes, ask, what are the wider questions the research addressed, how applicable is it to our models or situation, and which alternative actions that could be taken?
- Define terms. More than an academic imperative, questioning jargon and unpacking suitcase words is crucial for leaders and others alike wanting to understand and act upon the most vital ideas. When encountering such words – ‘agile’, ‘lean’, ‘digital’, ‘transformation’, ‘value’ – ask, what are the specific meanings and their relevance to your given situation and context?
- Embrace ‘I don’t know’. Humility is challenging for educators, consultants, and other would-be experts whose potential advantage has historically derived from specialized or unusual knowledge. However, as the value of training and education increasingly turns less on knowledge transfer and more on the development of learning capabilities, we benefit from ensuring the genuine openness to learning from the diversity of others’ experiences and perspectives.
- Question simplistic contrarians. Does a model or proposal differentiate itself only through its opposition to a prevailing standard (authority, tradition, technology, etc.)? A trainer or consultant needs to offer more than doing it differently from McKinsey – or, at least, their version of what McKinsey does.
- Realize anecdotes are not evidence. Substantiate the approaches being discussed – not through self-referential experiences but more general evidence. If the future is greatly uncertain, how relevant are specific past experiences or interventions? And if they are relevant, how can they be supported with other evidence? While individuals can have extraordinary experiences, we do well to question the logic of applying their lessons to other situations.
- Search for gaps, weaknesses, and points of failure in models. While prioritizing how models or approaches help us to identify potential pathways to success, what are their gaps, weaknesses, and potential points of failure? More importantly, how can learning about these be facilitated and the development of alternative approaches enabled over time?