My good friend, George Heiring, is a connoisseur of fine foods. He has traveled the world, enjoying unique cuisine from Tanzania to Poland to New Guinea. His newest book, soon to be published, is entitled When Do the Lions Eat? Dinner with George and his wife not only includes a discussion of the recipes of unique entrées but usually a fascinating story to go with it. If you weren’t hungry before the maître de seated you, a taste of George’s colorful stories will likely have your taste buds eager for satiation. 

George recently had surgery that left his sense of taste temporarily on vacation. He can detect a slight hint of something salty or perhaps an uncertain recognition of a sharp spice. But virtually everything that goes into his mouth is bland and functional. He only eats for fuel; he must eat to live. And, he wonders when and how his palate will wake up and make his meals enjoyable again. It is a lot like the taste of leadership. 

Savoring the Taste of Leadership

Associates’ relationships with their leaders have always been a subject of extensive study. Styles are meticulously dissected, superstar leader role models are extolled, and leadership philosophies are carefully studied. New leaders do not miss the fact they are given their mantle to achieve results through people. Their metrics are typically grounded in the arithmetic of quantitative performance. They also know they are charged with ensuring employees under their supervision are engaged, and turnover is low. 

At this juncture, the function of leadership diverges through the ways the “people or results” roles are performed. Some would say, “Take care of your people, and they will take care of the results.” Some would look at their scorecard and draw a different conclusion. Most organizations conduct a once-a-year “employee engagement” survey followed by a single discussion regarding “how are you going to change the numbers.” Meanwhile, the metrics of results are visited and discussed every single day. It is not just “what gets measured gets done,” it is “what is under the microscope of perpetual attention gets done.”

Where does the taste part come in? George loves to dine. George also loves to live. He delights in diverse and unique cuisine that makes his taste buds work overtime to savor every fantastic flavor. But, temporarily robbed of his capacity to taste, he still must shovel food into the furnace of his body. Leaders might like the taste of leading diverse and unique personalities, but the engine of enterprise is run on the fuel of results. It means they must lead from what they believe, not solely from what they can see on a graph. It is a bit like our current political quagmire jostling between “what is legal or illegal” and “what is just the right thing to do.”

The Search for New Metrics

The world of business is built on the logic of numbers, the foundation of economics. Examine how business leaders talk in finance-related language. We crunch the numbers, give someone a blank check, spend a fortune, look for a steal or a bang for our buck, hold the purse strings, avoid a rip-off, search for top dollar or a quick buck, scale back, and put our money where our mouth is. But, leading employees requires the logic of people. Yet we try to assess it using the same yardstick used to evaluate results. We measure morale with an engagement score; we gauge people’s success with high retention rates.

Marilyn Ferguson wrote in her book, The Aquarian Conspiracy, “In our cultural institutions we have been poking at qualities with tools designed to detect quantities. What does an intelligence test measure? Where in the medical armamentarium is the will to live? How big is the intention? How heavy is grief; how deep is love?” 

I have a neighbor whose daughter works for a Fortune 100 company. A computer does her performance review. How logical! But, people are not rational beings; they are emotional beings. They look to their leaders as people serving people by cultivating the taste of work, not merely commanding the toil of work. The logic of numbers works for the results side of leadership; applying it similarly to the logic of people is like trying to drive a nail with a b flat. Nothing wrong with b flats, mind you; just the wrong tool for carpentry.

When a group asked CEO Bill Marriott of Marriott hotel managers whether the company’s associate satisfaction index scores kept him up at night, he answered, “No, but their comments surely do.” It spoke volumes about a leader who stops associates in the lobby to inquire about their work and solicit their ideas for improvement. You can’t put that on a graph. 

George can look at his bathroom scales and determine if he is consuming the food he needs to stay healthy. But, no metric can quantitatively measure the return of George’s beloved taste buds. We have to take his word for it and pay close attention to the smile on his face at the dinner table. It is the same with your associates.