Certain phrases seem to creep into our vocabulary without us hardly even noticing. Before we know it, everyone's saying it, and it becomes a regular part of how we respond to situations on the job or at home.
Major Andrew Steadman is an Army officer of more than 15 years and is passionate about developing leaders through his blog, The Military Leader. He is also co-founder of The Military Writers Guild. I invited Major Steadman to offer his perspective on leadership and the phrase "It is what it is."
The words that follow are all his.
In 2007, I arrived in Baghdad as the commander of an Army Infantry company totaling 300 Soldiers. As I spent time with the unit we were replacing, I noticed they were quite fond of a phrase I hadn't heard yet.
"This Iraqi Army unit can't show up to an operation on time, but it is what it is."
"We've got a small outpost here, so parking will be tight. It is what it is."
"We took a lot of casualties in this area, so you should be prepared for that. It is what it is."
The unit used the phrase to explain (or excuse) action and inaction, misfortune and blessing, success and failure. It is what it is had evolved from words to mindset and had permeated the unit's culture.
Here's the problem with It is what it is. It abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat. A leader who uses the expression is a leader who faced a challenge, failed to overcome it, and explained away the episode as an inevitable, unavoidable force of circumstances. Replace It is what it is with "This resulted because I failed to do __________" and you get an entirely different discussion.
It is what it is is especially damaging when used to frame a response to a problem ("Our overhead costs unexpectedly increased, so we missed our revenue this quarter. What could we do? It is what it is.")
It is what it is is an admission that the problem is too hard and suppresses the attitude that leads to creative, unseen solutions. Even if a leader racks his brain for a solution to the challenge, yet can't find one...he should realize that his team contains a wealth of unique experiences and perspectives to contribute. It is what it is negates their value.
It's time to let go of It is what it is. This all too common phrase has no place in the lexicon of leaders who rely on the intellectual, emotional, and creative power of their people. It says "We can't," when success demands that leaders instead ask, "How can we?" The difference will be decisive.