CEO Coaching: Action Is Sometimes Just an Illusion of Progress

I’m a big fan of Ken Burns documentaries. Years ago, I took time off at Christmas and watched the Civil War series with one of my kids. I’ve since seen Burns’ films on national parks and country music. Brilliant! 

I’d known of Burns’ 1994 baseball series but only recently watched it; it was as good as his others. There are fascinating stories in each episode about how the teams and leagues were managed, but one that stuck with me was how inept owner George Steinbrenner was. He blew through 20 managers in 23 seasons and couldn’t quit meddling in the everyday business. It didn’t work. 

His story reminded me of a quote from the time of Nero that I once carried in my briefcase: “We tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.”

At the time, I was responsible for many retail stores, some of which underperformed others (of course). The easiest way to create the illusion of progress was to change out management at the store or regional level. Sometimes it was the right thing to do; sometimes it created no real progress.

Leaders are paid to make decisions and act, but that doesn’t mean they always should. Just like investing in equities, short-term trades aren’t a good strategy. Making a reasoned decision and then holding for the long term almost always produces a larger return. 

There’s always tension in leading others. The contraposition to the above-mentioned philosophy is, “When the horse is dead, dismount.” I’ve coached many leaders who wait far too long before taking action on a team member who isn’t performing. 

Balancing this tension is why you get the big bucks. Don’t be a Steinbrenner, but be sure your thoroughbreds are running well. It’s not the illusion of progress that you are looking for, it is real long-term results.

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