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The Great Hoax of Knowing About vs. Knowing How

The Dilemma

Knowing about something is not the same as knowing how to do something.  Here’s a completely made-up illustration.

All his life, Mike wanted to see the ocean. Growing up in a landlocked state in the middle of the country, he watched all of the shows on television about lifeguards and swimmers and people having fun in the ocean. One year. He finally got his chance. He planned his vacation to go to Southern California. There was just one problem; Mike didn’t know how to swim. Before his trip, he picked up several books about successful swimmers and the best swimming techniques and he read cover to cover. Before he got to California, he could tell you everything there was to know about swimming. As soon as he got there, Mike made of beeline for the beach. He ran across the sand jumped into the surf. The feeling of the waves crashing against him and the water filling his ears and his nose and stinging his eyes was something he did not anticipate. Mike quickly found himself over his head in ocean water. In a matter of moments, he had to be rescued.

Mike’s experience with swimming in the ocean is actually very similar to what many managers experience when it comes to leadership. They can read about what other people do, they can listen to experiences that other people have had. In the end, being an effective leader is something you have to do.

Knowledge is in the muscle

This reminds me of a saying from New Guinea that goes:

“knowledge is only rumor until it’s in the muscle”.  

And this certainly applies to the situation where knowing about swimming isn’t the same thing as knowing HOW to swim.

Let’s take this to a practical leadership level.

It is not sufficient for leaders to be familiar with concepts, models, ideas, or theories.

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Hey leader, bring on some tension!

The Utopian World?

At this point in the school year, most schools have established some routine. Classes are running along. School events are happening. The campus is being maintained. It’s usually at about this point in the year, though, when the “people issues” start to crop up.

It seems that most schools operate under a misconception that people will just go about their business in an ultra-professional, rational, controlled environment. In this utopian environment, people expect their leaders to give them nothing but calm, “let me work at my own pace”, conflict-free interactions in a workplace where nobody is offended or challenged?

Contrary to that perspective, that is not what leadership is about and it is not how leaders should operate.

2 Leadership Imperatives

In any organization, leaders need to do 2 things:

Bring a vision to inspire others and give them a direction to go.

Introduce the right amount of tension to get results.

Vision Alone Isn’t Enough

There have been volumes written about the importance of leaders setting a vision and inspiring others to adopt that vision as their own (Good to GreatThe Leadership Challenge, etc.). Vision alone is not enough. As an old Samurai saying goes,

Vision without action is dreaming. And action without vision is wasting time.

And, as my father used to say,

If you don’t know where you are going, any old road will take you there.

It takes more than a vision and a strategy to get results. How do leaders get results? In a word: tension.

Tagged in: Tension
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