Barely nine months ago, McKinsey & Company released a shocker of a study. It began benign, surveying some 500 senior leaders and more than 5,000 of their employees to gather impressions about the future of work, at an elusive moment when the pandemic briefly appeared to be ebbing. With a wise nod to the reality of a world clearly bent on remaining uncertain, 75% of employees not only saw hybrid as permanent, but believed that the meaning of hybrid would continue shape shifting. The shocking part came from the folks tasked with leading those employees: 75% of leaders said they believed the exact opposite. In stark contrast, senior leaders spoke of a rapid return to normal and of normalcy lasting for a good long time. Stark, to be sure, but given that at the very moment they were asked the so-called Great Resignation was in its third straight month, the divergence was more accurately jaw dropping.
McKinsey described leaders' surprising stance as a "finish line" mentality, suggesting that the mindset of these leaders was that the challenges of leading would soon be done and some magical form of autopilot leadership would return and suffice. In light of the facts then and now, it was if a full 3 in 4 senior executives were concerned more with the appearance of normalcy, or more pointedly, they appeared focused on the ceremonial, rather than the significant. It's more than an observation. More than passing labels, 'ceremonial versus significant' should be a daily test for leaders - that is, if their goal is to keep succeeding far into the future.
A Simple, Powerful Test
The ceremonial vs. significant test is pretty straightforward. As a leader, you have a repeated choice to make between the two. Both have value. Yet, in most instances, one is meant to lead, the other to follows. One should dominate a leader's time. When used sparingly, the other can have important meaning, but in truth plays a bit part in the grand exercise that is developing strategy, fostering culture, and creating value with lasting impact.
A Bad Trendline
With increased frequency, we've come to characterize good leadership as good ceremony. Say the right words, shake the right hands, tweet the right tweets in the moment, and it can appear that you are in fact leading. But actual leadership happens disproportionately before and after such moments. So too does the evaluation of your leadership by your team, customers, and investors.
No doubt, the world at large today emphasizes ceremony. Yield to that pressure is easy, but you do so at your peril - be it employees walking out the door when they conclude the emperor has no clothes, or the more punitive end result of your competition getting what you don't and crushing you, act by significant act. Ceremony markets; significance closes the sale and tees up the next.
How to Change the Dynamic
How can you change the dynamic? Walk before you run. Start by asking questions can help you see just how exposed you are. In my book on creativity, The Language of Man, I shared several question types that repeatedly allow innovators to see problems and opportunities they'd otherwise miss. For senior leaders seeking significance, three stand out.
Change-the-W Questions: In a rapidly changing environment, leaders need a steady perspective refresh. Powerful and simple, Change-the-W questions offer just that. Take any normal who, what, why, where (or how) questions and change the default word for one of its family members. When you do, "'How' do we solve this?" becomes "'Why' do we solve this?" Once asked, maybe you don't. Make it "'Where' do we solve this?" and the question takes on another meaning still. By consciously focusing on the unobvious you stop going through the motions and see the real significance (or lack of it) in acts and deeds.
Missing Questions: Here's a question: What are you not asking? As leader, chances are you regularly ask, "What's the picture here?" in search of stats on the immediate, the surface, the fire of the day. Do you ever ask a team member what the gallery looks like in which this picture hangs? Missing questions get at what writer Joseph Campbell called, "the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake." When you're not awake, you're more likely to neglect the significance. Asking what's missing can change that. And when you let others answer, you raise your odds of not just seeing the significant, but seizing it.
Unprofessional Questions: Missing questions are a subset of a larger type of question: unprofessional questions. These might just be the most important questions of all. They're the ones leaders fear, or have created taboo around. They're the kind that everyone in the organization wonders about, but never voices for fear of being penalized. Unprofessional questions don't fit in the orchestrated ceremony, but they absolutely reveal the existence or lack of significance in an organization does. Think about them this way: They're the questions your exiting employees have been asking for a long time, and the very ones that help you stem their exodus and enlist them in building something not just significant, but lasting.