The reason leadership maxims gain traction among leaders is that they are generally helpful. Pithy statements that summarize principles are both memorable and instructive. But not all leadership clichés can be trusted. In the untrustworthy clichés, there are nuggets of truth, but they are overstated or oversimplified. Here are three leadership clichés I never use because I find them untrue and unhelpful. With each cliché, I will offer my view about what is right with the cliché, what is missing, and what I would emphasize instead:
1. Work smarter, not harder.
The cliché advocates better thinking, not just more sweat. This is a helpful correction to feverishly working very hard without a clear direction or coherent strategy. It is, of course, wise to plan your work, to eliminate waste, and to use tools to maximize time and impact.
The cliché gives the impression that you can get a lot done just by being smart and not by working hard. This is just not true. To make an impact requires hard work in the same direction over sustained periods of time. The cliché overstates intelligence and thus minimizes grit, persistence, and work ethic.
Work hard and work wisely. You don’t need to choose between the two. In fact, it is wise to work hard.
2. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
The cliché emphasizes understanding your capacity, either individually or organizationally, so you don’t take on so much responsibility that you are unable to do anything well.
Seasons of being overwhelmed are the best seasons of learning. If you never bite off more than you can chew, you won’t experience the tension that produces growth.
Occasionally bite off more than you can chew. Not massively more, as you want to prove trustworthy with what you steward, but enough to put you in a posture where you need to grow and learn new things.
3. Only focus on your strengths.
No two people are exactly alike. Each person has a unique mix of experiences, skills, and passions. To focus predominately on your strengths is good stewardship of the one life you have been given. To play your position well is the best contribution you make to the team.
But if a leader does not move a weakness to at least average, the weakness will become a debilitating one that overshadows the strong points of the leader. A debilitating weakness will cause the leader to lose an essential trait that leaders initially possess—credibility. For example, administration may not be “your thing,” but you have to be able to answer your emails and show up for meetings. Relationships may not be “your strongest point,” but you need to be able to have a conversation.
Focus predominately on your strengths and neutralize your weaknesses. In Multipliers, Liz Wiseman writes, “The truth is that you do not need to be fabulous at everything. You just can’t be bad. You simply need to neutralize the weakness and move it into the middle, acceptable zone.”