Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Wizards and the Cheerleaders

An undiscussed topic in most organizations is the role of cheerleaders.

Obviously I don't mean the ones with pom poms and flips. Their antics can be easily ignored. The cheerleaders who worry me are the ones who boost the reputations and careers of individuals who are less than deserving.

In my experience, only a small percentge of the individuals with a reputation for brilliance or effectiveness deserve it. I've left meetings stunned after seeing these wizards in action and it wasn't because I went in with unrealistic expectations. These are the people who are famous for being insightful and yet, when you examine their track records, they've amassed a frightening collection of disasters.

Conversely, you'll often find the real talent holding up the wall in the board room, listening while people who did something right 20 years ago continue to coast on an image that should have been altered.

How do the faux wizards acquire a cheerleading crew? I've noticed several characteristics:

1. They woo cheerleaders. In politics, they take the time to chat with reporters. In companies, they schmooze with peers and superiors, especially those who are influential. They don't alienate the boss's secretary or spouse.

2. They know how to keep their mouths shut. Silence is often mistaken for deep thought or deliberation and they are masters of the concerned expression and the meaningful glance.

3. They look the role. It is easy to think of the person as impressive because the person looks impressive. No wrinkled shirts or stained ties for them.

4. They avoid extreme positions. In moderation is safety, acceptance, and few rude challenges. The moderate position may be wrong, but it is presumed to be thoughtful.

Once a few of the influential cheerleaders are won over, then the reputation is secure. Those people, and their more easily-swayed associates, will continue to trumpet the wisdom of the person who is now famous for being wise, much as some are famous for being famous.

The dance between the wizards and the cheerleaders will always be with us. Our task is to spot it and to exert extra caution when the superficial begin to tout the shallow as wise.

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