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How to Be an Elegant Leader

Plenty of leaders seek to boost their performance by becoming stronger, more agile, more forceful. Matthew E. May has a whole different strategy.

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Addition by Subtraction Matthew E. May suggests that action isn't always necessary.

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Most leaders seek to boost their performance by becoming more: more decisive, more communicative, more masterful of complexity. Matthew E. May prefers the opposite approach. A former consultant for Toyota, May sums up much of what he learned there about the art of simplification in the word elegance, which he applied to products, processes, and problem solving in his 2009 book, In Pursuit of Elegance. (A new book, The Laws of Subtraction, will be published this fall.) In a recent conversation with editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan, May discussed how elegance applies to leadership.

Let's start by defining elegance.
Elegance is the ability to achieve the maximum effect or impact through the minimum means. One of the best examples is the Google interface. There's a box; there's a lot of white space; you enter a term and search for it.

What's the leadership analogue of the Google interface?
Elegant leaders would be very accessible and easy to connect with. There would be nothing excessive about them. They would do nothing wasteful. Someone asks a simple question, and they get a simple, meaningful answer. Bill Bratton had an elegant way of leading at the New York Police Department. Doug Conant, who recently stepped down as CEO of Campbell's Soup, had the strategy of using small, informal points of daily contact to deliver meaningful messages about the company.

How does one become an elegant leader?
Elegance requires that you subtract. Leaders should ask themselves two questions: One: What would the people in my organization like me to reduce or stop doing? Two: What would my competitors hate for me to reduce or stop doing?

This is challenging, of course, because adding is a human inclination. A couple of days ago, my wife and I were at Costco, watching people walk out with big, happy smiles because they got 36 rolls of toilet paper and enough meat to feed an army. We love to accumulate. That's what business leaders do in terms of staffing and building their companies. And all of a sudden, growth becomes the strategy, and you wake up and, lo and behold, you realize we're a lot slower than we were a few years ago.

What kinds of things might leaders subtract?
In the case of what employees want you to stop doing, subtract anything that complicates an organization or how its people work. Leaders like to put structures in place, but a very structured organization can be extremely inelegant. Small companies tend to be much more elegant than large companies, because they are simple, agile, and resourceful, with a clear focus. Entrepreneurs often start out as quite elegant leaders.

What about in terms of competitors?
Competitors would hate it if you stopped doing things that get in your own way. Google's leaders would hate it if Microsoft's leaders stopped adding features the engineers think are cool but people have no use for.

What does elegant leadership look like in action?
It's the difference between karate and aikido. Karate is hitting and kicking. It's meeting force with force. Aikido is using the momentum of your opponent to your advantage. It's meeting force with give. If you were to watch aikido in action, you would see very, very little movement on the part of the aikido master. You would see a lot of movement on the part of the attacker. So it's the ability to use external forces in a way that moves us forward. Yes, the world is getting far more complicated. Things are changing faster than ever. How do you exploit that? How do you make it invisible to customers?

Are there things leaders are told to do that are inelegant?
Immediate action is supposed to be a sign of a forceful leader. But I remember what Boyd Matson, a longtime journalist for National Geographic, once told me: If the hippos charge at you, stand still. If you're on a safari and come across a watering hole with Mama Hippo and her calf, and she doesn't like the way your camera sounds and decides to charge, you can't fight her, and you will die if you run. The only way to survive is to stand still.

Leaders of businesses face 2,000-pound beasts every day—they're called competitors or the economy. When they're pressing down on you, doing something isn't always better than doing nothing.

Surely doing nothing is dangerous.
It's not dangerous if you develop a skill set around two important things: observation and reflection. In the Western world, we are driven by short-term cycles: the 10-day sales report, the monthly close, the quarterly stock report. In the East, they take the long view. First, you observe the problem and try to understand it from the perspective of others: the user, the employee, the customer. Only then do you begin the design or the decision-making process. If you don't take time to observe and reflect, you risk making things worse.

Is it possible to be a Zen leader?
Did Steve Jobs qualify as a Zen leader? He was certainly into it. I don't know how he came out to be such a toxic individual. A Zen leader would embrace the notion of masterful work and constantly get better at it. He would do what he did for a worthy reason and in a noble way. That constant pursuit of perfection while understanding perfection will never be achieved flies in the face of how we think. If we can't achieve something, then why pursue it? Well, because we have to. That's what Jobs did so well and Jeff Bezos does so well.

Leaders are always being told to communicate. Is too much communication antithetical to elegance?
You have to think about where that advice comes from. Some leaders don't communicate at all. Study after study shows that the two extremes—radio silence and TMI—don't work. So instead, use the Goldilocks principle of straight down the middle. Communicate just enough, just in time, and in such a way that you intrigue employees enough that they want to learn more. You want them leaning forward rather than sitting back with their arms folded.

Should the CEO also be a CSO—chief simplification officer?
No. Because, though all elegant things are simple, all simple things aren't elegant. You could make the case that "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap was all about simplicity, because all he wanted to do was cut, cut, cut. Jack Welch wanted to neutron-bomb businesses that weren't one or two in their markets. A leader must bring artfulness and emotional intelligence to how he thinks about simplifying.

Last updated: Feb 28, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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