Feb 2, 2009

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Why We Do The Things We Do

     Last week I attended the annual law conference for my company.  At the end of the conference our general counsel took questions from the cadre of lawyers.  Most of the questions challenged a number of existing and somewhat unpopular policies.  To his credit he fielded them all and while he did not give virtually any answer that any one wanted to hear I have got to give him props for being being able to  give his rationale for the decisions he made.  A lot of my colleagues griped about the decisions but the bottom line is if you don’t like what you hear, you can always leave.  For me, I respect the insight into his thought process which might serve me somewhere down the line.

Which brings me to the thrust of this blog.

Personally I try very hard to never respond to a question about one of my decisions by simply declaring, “Because I said so.” (especially to my daughter).  That phrase brings me back to my childhood pretty quickly.  It was something I heard from my father often.  That and, “as long as you live under my roof, you will follow my rules.”    The later was strong motivation for me.  By 16, I was out of house, on my own and off to the races.  By 18, I was traveling around the world on my own dime: trapsing across the Sinai with Bedouins, running with the bulls in Pamplona and harvesting grapes in France.  So while I can and have thanked my father for expediting my independence and making me ridiculously self sufficient, and, ultimately, fairly successful, in looking back at the landscape of my life I get that there was also a cost.   Hearing the constant refrain of “Because I said so” made me very anti-authority and very distrustful of people in power.   It probably retarded my ability to be an effective team player – after all the whole point of being self sufficient was I didn’t need to rely on, trust and ultimately work with anyone.  I’d like to think that as I’ve matured I’ve come to embrace the joys of collaboration and compromise.  But I can’t help but wonder how much more effective I could have been had I not been so dead set at challenging the powers that be. 

So, for me “Because I said so” is a patently unacceptable response to anything.  I’m also not a big fan of the rationale, “I was just doing what I was told” or “I was just following orders.  My kinsmen in Germany didn’t fare too well when that mantra was all the rage back in the 1930’s and 40s.

I choose to question everything and urge you to do the same.  Because if I don’t know why I am  doing something, I shouldn’t be doing it. 

Which brings me to the next irritating response to why? —- “Because this is the way it has always been done.”   In a lot of ways that is even worse than “Because I said so.”  At least “because I said so” provides for some ownership.  “Because this is the way it has always been done” erases any glimmer of accountability.  Rarely can anyone point to the person who put the policy into practice, let alone articulate the rationale for it.  So if you are going to question anything, I suggest you start with those things that have been in place the longest.

I suspect right about now some of you  might be squirming. “ What about tradition?” you might be thinking. 

Look I’m not advocating anarchy.  I am not one for doing something just for the sake of doing something new.  In fact I believe doing something just for the sake of doing something new is right on par with doing things blindly.  As a leader acting with that context would be irresponsible.  So before I try something new I need to ask my self two things — was the old way not working, or not working to my satisfaction?  And does the likelihood and benefits of success outweigh the potential downsides that might come from complete or partial failure?  If the answer to both queries is yes, off we go. 

As for tradition.  Tradition is nice and is a convenient shorthand to explain why you are doing something.   But things change.  And to me a tradition is all the more precious if you can get it to make sense in the context of the present.


But it is dangerous to seek to impose a practice on someone because it was  how it was always done.   Actually it is dangerous to impose a way of being on anyone.  For me I just need to know the why behind the action.  And even if I don’t agree with the rationale behind it, I need to find some way for it to make sense to me.  Otherwise I will just go through the motions or worse self sabotage what I am being “told” to do. 

So feel free to question but when you get an answer, respect it.  Even if you don’t agree with it.  And when questioned give some thought to providing context to your thought process.

In his inaugural speech, President Obama said, “Leaders are remembered not for what they destroy but for what they build.”  To that I would add, that it is not enough to be against something.  Rather as a leader, I feel I should always take a stand for something.  If I disagree about the way something is being done, my criticism is meaningless if it is not accompanied by an alternative solution. 

And in offering my alternative I don’t necessarily need to have it be accepted.  I just need to be heard.       So question, listen and learn.  Repeat as often as necessary.   

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