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Leadership Is About Breaking Things

Leadership is About Breaking Things

There’s often a very subtle difference between those who lead and those who lead well – those who lead well are very forward focused. If you’re more interested in protecting what is than you are finding the answer to what if you might be in a leadership role, but your likely not leading well. Order isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say routine is the great enemy of leaders. Conformity to the norm does little more than pour the foundation of obsolescence by creating an environment that shuns change rather than embraces it. Disruption is never found by maintaining the status quo, but it’s most commonly revealed in the chaos that occurs by shattering the status quo. Smart leaders don’t think “best” practices – they focus their attention on discovering “next” practices. The simple fact of the matter is too many leaders are concerned with fixing things, when what they should be doing is breaking things.

The principles outlined in the opening paragraph apply to every facet of business, but nowhere do they create more impact than when applied to leadership itself. You see, leadership development and succession are only positive practices if they’re applied to those worthy of the investment. Do you ever wonder how businesses can fall from the pinnacle of success to the depths of stagnation in only a few short years? One of the main contributors to corporate stagnation and decline is keeping the wrong leaders in place for the wrong reasons. My premise is a simple one – because the marketplace is ever changing, corporate leadership must adapt and change with the times in order to survive. Leaders who are not growing simply don’t have the capability to lead a growing organization.

The point I ask you to ponder is this: Leadership teams often espouse the need for change and innovation, but rarely apply this thinking to themselves – why? Ego, pride, arrogance, fear, or just being out of touch with reality can cause major blind spots. Leadership is not a right of entitlement, but rather a privilege that must be earned. Leaders who view themselves as a protected class are leaders not living-up to their obligations and responsibilities. Leadership teams on autopilot, while they may be adept at maintaining course, will rarely soar to new heights. If you take one thing away from today’s message it should be this: the most costly legacy system a company can maintain is poor leadership.

A lack of fluidity, development or contextual savvy can cripple even category dominant brands. Case in point – I recall reading an interview with Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE in which he touted the fact that his top 175 executives have been with the company an average of 21 years. While Mr. Immelt may actually believe this is a good thing, I would submit it is far from a foregone conclusion. Creating a fraternity does not constitute great leadership. It is simply not possible that all 175 of these executives have been the best people for their respective positions for the last two decades. A cursory examination of GE’s stock performance over the last decade would tend to support my logic.

Need to reinvigorate a stale enterprise? Try changing the corporate landscape by shifting existing roles and responsibilities, or by bringing in fresh talent from the outside. If you want to drive innovation, lead change, and create growth, stir the pot – go break something. It has been my consistent experience that when longevity of leadership is brandished as a badge of honor, it is usually just the opposite. The length of someone’s tenure is not nearly as important as whether they are the best person for the job. Smart companies realize that if someone is performing below expectations, they need to be coached to productivity or replaced – there is no third option if a healthy organization matters to you.

Static organizations tend to embrace comfort zones, and are often built upon the “DITWLY” (Did It That Way Last Year) principle. This attitude precludes the advancement of change initiatives and cripples innovation. Albert Einstein said it best when he noted “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time.” Be the leader who is never satisfied with what is – be the leader who is focused on what if? Savvy leaders understand “fixing” something creates a false sense of completion, whereas “breaking” something creates a vision for a new beginning.

I’m asking you to consider breaking the existing leadership paradigms within your organization. Find a few sacred cows and lead them to slaughter. Examine what you measure and why you measure it. Look at how decisions are made and who is allowed to make them. Inject youth where none presently exists. Replace the office squatters (those who have mentally quit, but failed to physically leave). Don’t reward static thinking, encourage dissenting opinion and diversity of thought. Go break something.

The bottom line is this…Great leaders constantly challenge the present in order to find the path to the future. They challenge themselves, and they encourage others to challenge them as well. Leadership isn’t about being right, it’s about achieving the right outcome. Don’t agonize over this, and don’t ask permission; go break something. Meritocracy or Mediocrity – the choice is yours…


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    October 26, 2011 at 9:33 am


    I can’t remember ever reading one of your posts (and I’ve been an admirer of your work for some time) that made me want to stand up and cheer like this one!

    Of course at most firms you’d be burned at the stake for violating the first commandment:


    I only hope I’d have the courage to stand with you. Well done.



      Mike Myatt

      October 26, 2011 at 9:55 am

      Thanks Ron. I don’t recommend heresy just for the sake of being a heretic, but I also don’t recommend being a mindless part of the herd that wastes opportunity and squanders potential. Tie me to the stake and strike a match:) Thanks for stopping by Ron. 


    Dan Collins

    October 26, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Now that’s what I like about you Mike. “Cry havoc and let loose the dogs…” If we don’t ruffle we aint worth diddly.


      Mike Myatt

      October 26, 2011 at 1:46 pm

      Thanks Dan, I think:). Sometimes the best catalyst comes in the form of a provocateur. 


    Tanveer Naseer

    October 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I think your point about how people remaining in the same role/function for a very long time is more detrimental to growth than a benefit is an important one that bears more consideration. 

    After all, one of the ideas being discussed lately is how this latest generation of workers is the first one to enter the workforce with no illusions that they will remain with any one employer for more than a couple of years.  Much of the talk around this tends to be negative or discouraging, viewing these new entrants into the workforce as being nomads without a cause because they won’t have that desire to remain standing with one organization for decades like their parents did.

    I think your point here helps to reinforce that, if anything, such mobility will encourage all parties to not simply aim to create a best practices approach so as to inform new recruits of ‘how things are done around here’, but to welcome these changes as opportunities to look at how things can be improved, if not opening new doors which until then remained untouched.

    Thanks again Mike for another inspiring and engaging piece.


      Mike Myatt

      October 26, 2011 at 4:27 pm

      Thanks Tanveer. The first step to getting out of a rut is to recognize you’re in a rut. The routine tends to dull one’s senses, and lulls them into an altered state that accepts the complacent and apathetic as normal behavior. Discipline isn’t adhering to the routine, it’s having the vision to focus on the rigor that leads past the predictable to the unprecedented. Thanks for stopping by Tanveer.


    Dan Rockwell

    October 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for giving back to the community. 

    What are your thoughts on initiating disruption in top down organizations that love the status quo?




      Mike Myatt

      October 27, 2011 at 1:17 am

      Hi Dan:

      I can always count on you to put me squarely in the hot seat:)  There are a variety of techniques one can use to influence up, but it really all boils down to the amount of risk a person is willing to shoulder in attempting to bring about change from below. Here is a three step analysis to conduct in determining what to do: First, don’t get sucked into the status quo – it’s bad for your mental health. Secondly, assess whether of not there’s anything you can realistically contribute to making an impactful change, and if you are willing to pursue change, then don’t get political, don’t get emotional, and above all don’t get personal – make a straight forward business case and see what happens. Lastly, if you cannot help to create positive changes then get out as quickly as you can.



      October 28, 2011 at 1:25 am

      Dan I just got laid off today from a company just like you describe after fighting to make positive change for seven years. Mike I needed your advice seven years ago. You’re so right about the not getting emotional and personal. I made that mistake numerous times. Status quo won out, but the company’s soon to close the doors so I guess it really didn’t.


    Wally Bock

    October 27, 2011 at 12:11 am

    Well said, Mike. Creative destruction is not just for economists. The fact is that every great leader I’ve ever known was constantly, restlessly searching for a better way and you can do that without shaking things up.


      Mike Myatt

      October 27, 2011 at 12:57 am

      Thanks for stopping by Wally. I like to think that good leaders have faired better than their economist counterparts, but then again, perhaps not:) Thanks again Wally.


    Michael McKinney

    October 27, 2011 at 4:42 am

    Mike, I think the key to the problem you state is that “leaders who are not
    growing simply don’t have the capability to lead a growing organization.” Far
    too many leaders are not growing. I think the mindset is that I have been put
    here for a reason and that reason is “me.” That’s why so many leaders never
    mature as leaders. They aren’t (don’t actively consider) growing. They become
    an obstacle to overcome, to ignore or to go around.

    Great thoughts, Mike.


      Mike Myatt

      October 27, 2011 at 5:55 pm

      Yes! If you’re a bottleneck as opposed to a conduit, you’re not leading. I’ve often said, the greatest obstacle in life is the barrier of self. Once leaders mature to a point where they realize leadership isn’t about them, but what they can do for others, they’ll seek every opportunity for growth and development. Well said Michael. Thanks for the contribution.


    Mike Henry Sr.

    October 27, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Mike, thanks for that opening sentence to the last paragraph.  “Great leaders constantly challenge the present in order to find the path to the future.”  Success in the present is, in my opinion, the greatest obstacle to finding the path to the future.  We change in response to discomfort.  And if we (or at least I) focus on the success in the present, we will never take up the challenge to create the future. 

    Thanks for another thoughtful post.  Mike…


      Mike Myatt

      October 27, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      Hi Mike:

      Thanks for bringing out this thought: “we change in response to discomfort.” This is a very common position adopted by many – it’s also a big problem. While it’s never too late to change, and discomfort is certainly a legitimate catalyst for change, why wait for the pain to be inflicted before waking up? My premise is savvy leaders implement change to avoid discomfort, not in reaction to it – it’s a vision thing. If you wait until the truck runs you over to realize you should have moved, you’re too late. Thanks for pointing this out Mike. Great contribution to the thought stream.  


        Mike Henry Sr.

        October 28, 2011 at 2:43 am

        I don’t disagree.  Savvy leaders implement change to avoid discomfort.  I just think they’re the minority when it comes to change.  You’ve heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”



    David D

    October 27, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Excellent post. One aspect of this I always encourage is for leaders to give their teams the confidence and independence to innovate…leaders will push it along in some places, or tie apparently different things together into something bigger to constantly recreate the vision and strategies of their org. Their teams grow and are more motivated from a sense of trust to help lead the “breaking”. A leader setting off on his own to break it all themselves will sometimes inadvertently lose their team in the process.  Thoughtful stuff, thanks again for the post.


      Mike Myatt

      October 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      Astute observations David. It should be common sense that employees encouraged and trusted to do good things – will. The sad thing is the control freaks, risk managers, and protectors of the status quo have eviscerated the natural inclinations of many good employees by having them “do things right” vs. “do the right thing.” Thanks for sharing David.


    Scott Mastroianni

    October 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you.  This is the first blog I’ve read from you and boy did it resonate.  Can’t wait to read some others.  So much of this we face in school systems.  I definitely enjoy the challenge of trying to shake up education as we know it.  Look forward to future articles.


      Mike Myatt

      October 27, 2011 at 5:29 pm

      Hi Scott:

      Welcome and thanks for the kind words. There are few places in need of disruptive innovation like our school systems. Thank you for caring enough to make a difference in the lives of our next generation of leaders. 


    Dr. Joni Carley

    October 31, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I like your point about what we measure and why. If we measured values, we’d value chaos and creativity in balance with their impact on profits, share prices, innovations and stakeholder loyalty. The old profit-at-any-cost paradigm is disintegrating while a fresher, more dynamic, values-driven paradigm that relies on principles in this article is emerging. Fortunately, there are new metrics that are intelligent enough to embrace the need for constant, conscious evolution. Dr. Joni, http://www.LeaderfulEdge.com


    Tom Kooy

    November 3, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Really like this post Mike. I agree we are currently in a business environment where in order to maintain a competitive advantage we need to be ever changing, not maintaining the status quo, not being traditional, not even being too comfortable as leaders in our business approach. 

    The saying goes, ‘the fish rots from the head’ and as leaders, we need to be letting go of the way it was done in the past and grabbing on to market changes as they occur. If the leader isn’t right, neither is the business. 

    In my opinion, we as the modern company, should not actually have anything breakable in it, but rather malleable. Leaders and employees alike should be flexible in their thinking and approaches, prepared to change with the landscape.

    Those that attempt to hold on to past and then at the same time go forward into the future are a bit like like Tarzan, as he swings through the jungle from vine to vine. If he was to hold on to the last vine and the next vine at the same time, he would be static. Organisations are the same, if they are too scared to firstly, break their existing processes/sacred cows, they too will be static and eventually fail (or be able to swing through the jungle, to continue the Tarzan reference). 

    Also, as a leader, constantly breaking things might eventually be detrimental to (a) the health of the business & (b) the length of the leaders tenure. What I would suggest is the key as a leader is to make an organization malleable, prepared to change and avoiding those sacred cows getting too comfortable in the first place…


    Jordan DH Shaw

    November 16, 2011 at 1:00 am

    This article is great. I’d like to piggy-back off of what @c1690d4937ede2c454800c877354b34e:disqus said about values-driven paradigms and say that the need to re-think what effectiveness means is also critical. We need to judge the success of leaders according to the right criteria. The value-investment movement is a shining example of this.

    As a recent graduate, I’ll also add in that the assumptions we have about the ways we evaluate success also need re-thinking. Static assessment philosophy is just as bad as static production philosophy. 

    I’m looking for methods that can be used to argue for new assumptions – times when business-based cases will be difficult or impossible to make. Otherwise, it looks like we’re left to wait until someone else takes action and proves that a different philosophy works. 



    July 11, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Our company is managed by a Steering Committee (7 members, all have been with the company for 20+ years).  We are a successful company – profitable and growing.  However, I sense a degree of stagnation with our goal setting – especially with our 2 year plan.  I want to shake things up a bit – to expand our vision.  We need to break away from the mundain goals, need to set goals that challenge our thinking, etc.  Any suggestions?


      Mike Myatt

      July 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      Lots of possible suggestions, but here are just a few that might help:
      1. Add some new blood to the Steering Committee by either replacing some of the existing members or adding to the group.

      2. Focus the next 3 meetings on innovation and change. Don’t just talk about change, but make changes to how things are currently being done. Look at your biggest opportunities or greatest risks and focus on making a meaningful change.

      3. Consider bringing in a facilitator to lead a session with Steering Committee on assessing ways to bring a fresh perspective on your vision for change as it applies to your 2 year plan. 

      Hope these thoughts help…


    JD. Meier

    July 11, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Beautiful insights.

    What I’ve found is that it’s less about bringing in new talent, and more about creating a culture of continuous learning.

    If the culture doesn’t reward innovation, results, and tolerate risk and failure, then  it doesn’t matter how fresh the faces are.  Old dogs learn new tricks, and new talents brings out their best when the leaders create an arena of excellence, empowerment, and learning.

    That said, culture is simply a reflection of the values, and value flow down, so it does help to have the right people with the right value in place at the top.


      Mike Myatt

      July 13, 2012 at 9:44 am

      Agree on all points. If continuous learning is not valued and practiced an organization will have great difficulty remaining competitive over the long-term. Thanks for sharing JD.


    Mighty Rasing

    July 12, 2012 at 8:41 am

    There’s something about tradition that’s comfortable. Structures and systems even reinforce the “established” way of doing things. And that is where leaders should come in. Entrepreneurial leaders always challenge the status quo and push an organization towards a better place. But those who belong to the old guard don’t see it that way. Maybe there’s a way for leaders to be entrepreneurial without alienating (too much) the “old guards”


      Mike Myatt

      July 13, 2012 at 9:47 am

      Here’s a thought – if the only method for remaining in a leadership role was based on contribution, and not protecting those with a lack thereof, we wouldn’t have an “old guard” issue. 


    LeRoy Dennison

    July 12, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I really liked this post, except for the first paragraph, where you said the following:

    “Order isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say routine is the great enemy of leaders. Conformity to the norm does little more than pour the foundation of obsolescence by creating an environment that shuns change rather than embraces it. Disruption is never found by maintaining the status quo, but it’s most commonly revealed in the chaos that occurs by shattering the status quo.”

    What about leaders who step into a situation where there is no order, and the status quo is total chaos.  Establishing order is the first duty of a leader thrust into this type of environment.  If there is no routine to use as a baseline, then you can’t begin the process of improvement, in my opinion.


      Mike Myatt

      July 13, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Hi LeRoy:

      As a practical matter I agree with your distinction. That said, leadership isn’t always practical, and often times it’s the practical mindset that impedes necessary action. Let me give you an example – A leader of a first response situation arrives on the scene, which appears on the surface as being unorganized, if not altogether chaotic. In an effort to bring order to the situation, if the leader were to recall all the first responders to establish a plan and assign responsibilities, lives that would have been saved due to the chaotic but necessary efforts of the team members, would be lost while the leader has them removed from engagement to establish order. 

      It’s a leader’s first obligation to ensure the proper outcome not establish order. Where the two can co-exist fine, but where they cannot, the leader needs to be able to thrive in chaos – not order it. 



    August 2, 2012 at 2:42 am

    Certainly leadership is about breaking things, orthodox beliefs, old traditions and conventional thoughts. As your topic indicates great leaders never believe in TAKING right decisions rather they take decisions and MAKE THEM RIGHT and show the world. 

    […] If your desk is so clean you don’t have anything to work on then you might be focusing on the wrong thing — it might be time to make a bit of a mess (see Leadership Is About Breaking Things). […]

    […] If your desk is so clean you don’t have anything to work on then you might be focusing on the wrong thing — it might be time to make a bit of a mess (see Leadership Is About Breaking Things). […]



    February 19, 2013 at 2:37 am

    Interesting perspective Mike.

    I am not in a manager or position, how would you suggest me to lead a sacred cow to the slaughter?

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