Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership

Leaders…Cut to the Chase!

157.4. That’s the read on the scale. A few pounds over, thanks to lockdowns, gym closures, and holiday meals. Time to up my biking. More walking with my dogs (though both are serious mental cases). Avoid the kitchen (which is right next to my study!). Otherwise I am sure to enter a state of corpulence.

Right now, I am dealing with a more serious flab, one demanding immediate liposuction. My writing. Now that I am in the rewrite phase of my third book, I am finding fatty cells concentrated in various parts of the text. It’s a reminder that there is no such thing as good writing—only good rewriting. Thankfully, I am not alone. Anne Lamott confesses, “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (I’m sorry, but there’ no other way to say it).

Flab is the enemy of every writer (Sol Stein), so I am on a mission of search and destroy. It begins with adjectives and adverbs. As Mark Twain put it, “If you catch an adjective, kill it!”  Trim the commas. Whack those unsightly semi-colons. Watch for words you keep reusing, the ones that grow like dandelions.  Get rid of sentences that say the same thing but keep those sentences that visualize (“I know this blogpost is challenging my thinking because I am smelling burnt hair”).

Given that the subject of my book (and most posts) is leadership, I am finding an even more dangerous flab. Call it “Leadership Fat.” Over time, leaders can lose their leanness. They begin to fall in love with their voices, and their words become bloated. In his book, The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim worked with a governor who “never says in a sentence what he can say in a long paragraph.”

If leaders are not watching, meetings expand like waistlines after holiday hors d’oeuvres. Key to Clifton Wharton’s success at TIAA was his commitment to end every meeting with “Let’s get closure on this thing.” Unlike meetings I have observed, an “action item” should not be an oxymoron.

Fat has a way of accumulating within the basic tasks of leading. Have you noticed how strategic plans can mushroom into multipage documents? Leaders tend to gorge themselves on the latest trends, weighing teams down with expanded goals and tactical plans.

In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, the writers make the point that human beings are hardwired to do one thing at a time. Better to have one “wildly important goal.” Wise leaders narrow their focus. Minimize the lists in the op plan. I often go back to Jim Collins and his statement, “A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.”

In church circles, something like “ministry creep” takes hold. We keep adding new procedures and policies and initiatives and furniture and staff and line items and locations and… We keep adding new clothes to the wardrobe, leaving the old to hang until the rod collapses.

Disciplined leaders do an occasional purge. They refuse to feast on unnecessary conflicts. They cut to the chase with troublesome people who want to hang on to old grudges or former ways, the stuff that weigh organizations down. At times, they may even need to take the knife (metaphorically) to members who need to move on.

I can say this now that I am retired, but looking back, I could have done a better job of subtracting. Asking certain congregants to find another church. Refusing the temptation of chasing after new ideas, Staying with what is on the plate—that dream that has yet to become reality. Effective leading—like writing—isn’t always about expanding.

1 Comment
  • Terry Cook
    11:42 AM, 1 January 2021

    further to your point: “I’m sorry for writing this very long letter. I just didn’t have time to write a short one.” per Mark Twain I believe. Spot on in any case.

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