A while back, my wife was buying arts and crafts supplies for our children, and she found a Paint By Numbers kit that lets the user create a rough copy of a famous artist’s masterpiece. It was an interesting project for my daughter, who loves all sorts of art. And I appreciate the idea – you can enjoy painting without requiring amazing skill as an artist. Paint By Numbers isn’t “real” art in the sense of something the artist completely creates. Everyone knows that, so no one minds.
But if you try to pass off a Paint By Numbers project as indicative of your artistic talent and creativity, now we have a problem.
That brings us to this week’s Thursday Tirade.
I’m reading a timely book called “Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution” by Tim Kane.
A former Air Force intel officer and a current economist, Kane looks at what the military does right in developing leaders, and what it does wrong in managing its people. The basic point is that the best and brightest of the military officer corps are leaving at higher rates than anyone expects, and the assumption is that the same is true of the enlisted. Kane makes the case that while the military is attracting better recruits than ever, it is at the same time hemorrhaging them out as soon as the minimum commitment is up.
I can’t imagine why.
There are two problems with the sort of “leadership” that often gets promoted in today’s military. We emphasize big numbers over real accomplishments, and we demand that future leaders conform to the mold of the past. Paint inside the pre-made lines, please. Don’t worry, we gave you 100% more paint colors than you had before.
We look for metrics and spreadsheets to tell the story of our success, which inherently leads to quantity over quality. Everything must be quantifiable. A “smart” leader knows this, and does whatever it takes to improve key numbers, even at the expense of quality. An upwardly mobile leader knows how to walk the fine line of avoiding by any documented decline in quality while doing everything possible to increase the numbers further. I don’t want to rehash old posts, so… moving on.
Performance reports are functionally useless. The smallest effort can be spun into an amazing “accomplishment” in a report, painting the required pretty picture even though everyone involved knows the individual has no actual talent.
We have a system that encourages checking boxes and telling a good story more than actual decisive leadership and management. There’s a “right” career path, and our young enlisted and officer personnel are told that if you do these things, you will be on the track to swift promotion. We don’t always look back to see the actual performance of the individual. We just look for those key achievements and milestones.
Leaders are judged based on these inflated reports and one-dimensional metrics, but no one considers the human cost involved. Three of the four folks who do my job practically live on painkillers to keep working, because they genuinely love our job. And yet we push harder and try to do more with less. We break individuals because we know we can pull another individual from somewhere else in order to keep getting our quantity and our high rates. Or we ignore people’s needs to meet the mission goal, without realizing that the people are the ones that make the mission successful.
None of this is surprising or new.
And yet the military continues to hang up Paint By Numbers leaders on prominent display in the art gallery. Too often, we reward and promote the managers who do the most harm to their people, because the story the numbers tell looks so good on paper. When the news of an award or promotion creates audible anguish in the form of screams and cries of “WTF” from offices, when individuals at every level question what’s happening and shake their heads in secret, then maybe something important is missing.
Leadership is not a science. There’s no equation for it, no perfect recipe to bake the “leadership” cake. You cannot measure out two cups of reward, plus one cup of discipline, three ounces of compassion and one pinch tenacity.
Leading people is an art form. It takes time and effort to improve. More importantly, it takes compassion for those we lead, and passion for the goal we’re leading them to achieve. Leadership requires vision.
Don’t hang up a Paint By Numbers picture in an art gallery and call it a masterpiece. Likewise, please don’t lead by numbers and call it visionary.