Little Things

I recently read an article by Gretchen Rubin titled “Trick Question: Can One Coin Make a Person Rich?” In this article she cites the fifteenth century scholar, Erasmus, from Rotterdam, Netherlands. This intrigued me as some of those who know me and my never ending quest for the arcane can attest. I finished reading the article and then did a little research on Erasmus as my curiosity had been piqued. Gretchen sited not a book, but a footnote in Erasmus’ 1509 essay “In Praise of Folly”. Now I was hooked. The footnote was related to and explained “the argument of the growing heap.”

According to the footnote, the argument of the growing heap is: “If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

This is an interesting proposition. If you continue to give a person coins, at some point in time you will have given them enough so that they can be considered rich. But how many coins does it take? Which specific coin is the one that pushes the individual across the “rich” threshold? I think we can all conceive of and follow the logic here in general, but again may have divergent views on which individual act of giving a coin is the “special” one. This got me to thinking, yet again. That is always a dangerous process.

I continually try to look at what leadership is, as opposed to what management is in the business and sales environments. I like to point out that we have always looked up to and followed great leaders, not great managers. Applying what Gretchen Rubin cited and what Erasmus footnoted may seem at first to be a bit of a stretch here, but overall I think it is pretty interesting.

If we apply the argument of the growing heap to actions demonstrating leadership (or to actions demonstrating management for that matter) we would have to say that there is obviously some threshold where at which, after a certain number of leadership demonstrating actions an individual would be considered a leader. Let’s not get into what a leadership demonstrating action is. That too is a matter for conjecture. For purposes here, let’s just assume that there is such a thing.

To put this question another way, I would ask if one anomalous leader like activity in the career of an otherwise drone like manager would make that individual a leader. Now remember we are talking about business, not politics. My suggested answer would be no, one leadership action in a career doesn’t qualify anyone to be a leader. I have seen some managers take leader like actions by mistake and immediately revert back to their management activities. If it is not one action, then how many? Would ten qualify? How about a hundred?

I think you can now see the application of the argument of the growing heap that I am making to business. The fact that it originates in a sixteenth century essay titled “The Praise of Folly” seems to me to make it that much more apropos for its application to business, or politics today.

We all make a number of decisions and take a myriad of actions during the course of a normal business day. These decisions can either add to or detract from growing our leadership “heap”. How we are perceived as leaders is subjective in that each individual will have a different threshold for what they consider an acceptable leadership heap to be. Many will also have varying values that will be assigned as to how much a demonstration of leadership advances the heap and how much a management act reduces it.

I remember reading a joke which stated that every time someone did something good at the office they got a little token that read “Atta Boy!” When they got one hundred “Atta Boy!” tokens they were entitled to a firm handshake, a slap on the back and a “Good Job!” from the boss. However if they ever did something wrong they got an “Aw Crap!” sticker which meant that they had to immediately give back all of their “Atta Boy!” tokens, even if they had ninety-nine of them, and then start back from zero in their quest for a “Good Job!” from the boss.

I don’t know why that little story came to mind, but it does seem to fit in when we talk about the subjective nature of leadership activities, management acts, and how the two are judged by the population in general.

Sometimes we manage the issue and sometimes we lead by example. We need to remember that inevitably people are always watching what we as leaders do. According to the argument of the growing heap, it is in fact one individual act of leadership, in a succession of leadership acts that can qualify an individual to be a leader. The question then arises as to which single act is it? As no two individuals are going to have the same perceptions and values, it’s probably safe to say that there will never be an agreement on which specific act caused someone to cross the leadership threshold, or which management act caused them to fall back from it. Therefore I would say that every act is important.

If we add the complexity to the argument that an “Aw Crap!” management moment can reduce the “Atta Boy!” leadership heap by a disproportionate amount, it means that every action counts, both positive and negative counts even more.

Gretchen Rubin noted in her article “Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful.”

I would suggest that this is not the case in business. As a leader every action we take will have meaning. It will either add to or detract from your leadership position. I think we have all experienced the fact that it normally takes many more positive acts to outweigh what may be considered or perceived as a negative act.

Leadership is an ongoing process where every action counts. It will be good to remember that the next time you are going to take an action, even on the little things.

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