A Bold Alternative to the Worst 'Best' Practices

In martial arts, a sensei often reminds students: "You are always practicing something. The question is: What are you practicing?" In our work with clients, we see over and over again that there's a direct link between leaders' practices and results. But many so-called "best" practices not only fail to solve the problems they were meant to solve but they actually produce poor results.

We need to learn how to spot the signs that certain practices aren't working: Your team is dysfunctional, customers are leaving, your plan no longer appears relevant. Last fall, it took nothing less than the failure of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent devastation on Wall Street for many executives to admit that their approach wasn't working. The leaders of these organizations had practiced legislated optimism—a culture based on "Trust me! We're fine! All is well!"—that left everyone else in the dark. Communication went from the leader to everyone else. The message was always upbeat, and information was presented with a coat of whitewash. The day before Bear Stearns was acquired by JPMorgan Chase for a humiliating $2 a share, CEO Alan Schwartz assured everyone that all was well.

For leaders who practice legislated optimism, being right is more important than getting it right. The truth is, of course, that a problem exists whether we cop to it or not. As Carl Jung said: "What is not made conscious will emerge later as fate."

"Fierce Leadership" But legislated optimism isn't the only best practice that is sabotaging corporate success. Some of the others I mention in my new book include 360-degree anonymous feedback, hiring for "smarts," the way we hold people accountable, employee "engagement" programs, and the mantra about "client centricity." The alternatives lead to fierce leadership: replacing familiar and acronym-riddled traditions with ones that actually produce results.

Imagine practices that build execution muscle while enriching relationships with everyone around you. Imagine practices that move you and your team beyond the level playing field and into an entirely new realm of competition. These are practices that hone your faith in yourself and your company, and practices that are visible to everyone.

On the accompanying slide show, I outline some of the current best practices and suggest alternatives. Instead of anonymous feedback, for example, do all of it face-to-face—and alter the focus of the conversation. Instead of hiring the smartest and most self-assured person you can find, look at the one who forges the deepest connections with people.

I recall one cartoon in which two birds sit on a wire. The first bird says, "I have a new song!" The second bird protests, "But we've been programmed to sing the same song for thousands of years." The first bird replies, "Yes, but mine rocks!" There is a bold, compelling line between leadership and fierce leadership. It's time to trade the practices that are "best" for ones that will actually help you and your team to succeed.