I’ll date myself with this one.
There is a Larry McMurtry song, from a lifetime ago, titled Painting By Numbers. It's kind of about abdicating your right/ability to choose, so that you do what’s expected, to follow the rules, not have to think too hard. It also brings to mind the old “paint by numbers” kits that were all the rage when I was a kid. You didn’t have to over think them, you didn’t have to interpret anything. You had to pay attention, keep your brush clean, keep a fairly steady hand.
I spoke with a friend recently and she told me about her new boss - late 30’s, bright, dedicated, busy. I asked about his leadership style and she said, “Well, it's a little like he leads by checklist.” I asked her to tell me more, and she added, “it’s like he has these ‘things’ he’s supposed to do: greet each employee as they come by, check-in with everyone on the team at some point each day, ask about their weekend on Monday, have an eight minute development talk twice each quarter - that kind of stuff.”
I said that none of those sounded bad, some of my favorite leaders did similar things. My friend replied, “yea, that’s just it, he does all the right things, but it doesn’t feel genuine; it feels like he does them because they’re expected of him, like he’s following a plan, like they’re on a checklist.” Then I got it.
Leadership is a real thing. True, it’s about results, but it's about achieving results through relationships, through people. You manage resources; you lead people.
Leadership is art and science. And, you need both to be at your best. One of the biggest keys to effective leadership is taking the science aspect of it and bringing it to life, that’s the art of it. And, when I say art, I mean heart, or my preferred phrase - (He)art & Science.
Yes, checklists are good tools; books are good for learning. It’s important to know the elements of effective communication, it's important to understand goal setting, planning and delegation, it’s important to achieve results.
You also have to connect with your people; you have to build the relationships that allow you to achieve the results. For that, you need to listen and connect, to provide feedback and praise, you need to operate with emotional intelligence, you need to be positive and resilient. And most importantly, you need to be authentic and genuine. Otherwise, it feels hollow, it feels inauthentic - it feels like you’re leading by checklist.
While a “paint by numbers” kit might help you get started, at some point you’ll want to move toward a Bob Ross style of painting. A style that feels like your own; a style that feels less rigid, more adaptive, more genuine; a style that balances (He)art & Science.
A mentor once shared with me, “if you want to know if you’re really a leader, just look behind you.”