Pithy comments can be enlightening, useful, and often embed great wisdom. However, sometimes, their brevity leaves much to ponder over. Or, maybe that’s the purpose of pithy words; it provokes us to think more.
While I cherish Robert Townsend’s “Up The Organization,” full of piercing observations of organizational nonsense and wise advise to counter it, I often want to parse some sentences for details on the how’s. It is difficult to address how’s in a pithy manner. A thoughtful and wise manager (yes, it’s a rarity but such managers exist) may be able to glean guidance from this modest volume, but most mortals need more. Such is also my reaction to David Ogilvy’s observations on creative leaders’ quality and management principles.
Many considered Ogilvy to be the “The Father of Advertising,” or, the original “Mad Man,” according to Maria Popova, the curator and founder of www.brainpickings.org. He was in the creative business and was successful at running one of the world’s leading ad agencies in the 50s and 60s.
Mr. Ogilvy offers many excellent points and lessons on writing, creativity, leadership, and management in his “Unpublished David Ogilvy.”
On the quality of creative leaders, he offers the followings:
- “High standards of personal ethics.
- Big people, without pettiness.
- Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
- Brilliant brains — not safe plodders.
- A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
- Charisma — charm and persuasiveness.
- A streak of unorthodoxy — creative innovators.
- The courage to make tough decisions.
- Inspiring enthusiasts — with trust and gusto.
- A sense of humor.”
It is difficult to argue with these seemingly common-sense points. However, times have changed since these words were uttered, decades ago. For instance, Mr. Ogilvy explained the hard working principle, “Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.”
If people are allowed to have their “purpose, mastery, and autonomy (link below)” at work, they would want to work hard to reach their personal “high.” But when an organization – through management – demands, seemingly wily-nily, that you surrender evenings and weekends, it kills your soul and spirit eventually … and possibly your marriage and family.
Working hard is what most of us desire to do, but that has to come from self-motivation rather than external incentives/disincentives. If Mr. Ogilvy could see how much busywork there is in organizations these days, and how people are stressed because they can’t find enough time to do what they really care to do, he probably would modify his statement on “hard work.”
And about “charisma,” I am always a bit wary of charismatic people. Lee Iacocca was hugely charismatic, so was Jack Welch. Both of them had shining moments in their “leadership” years, but ultimately, much of what they did was for their own egos. They are not considered “level-5” leaders, in Jim Collins’ taxonomy (link below), for good reasons. In fact, many “level-5” leaders are not at all charismatic but definitely methodical; they may even be a little dull. Does this mean that executives in advertising industry have to be charismatic? Does the nature of the industry have certain claims on leadership qualities?
Before you think I need to challenge most of Ogilvy’s words, here is one gem I love: “If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.” Yet … yet … beware of those self-important “exceptional” persons. An “asshole, (link below)” no matter how brilliant, can be demoralizing for colleagues at the workplace. So, I found strong resonance with Ogilvy’s point on creative integrity: “Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.”
Ultimately, my point is this: For every wonderful pithy statement, there are many nuances one needs to consider. However, I accept totally this piece of wisdom from Mr. Ogilvy: “If you ever find a man who is better than you are – hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.” What humility! If you encounter such a boss or colleague, cherish your luck.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.