In Praise of Dust

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

I first saw this credo on a banner in the main pavilion of the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. The sentiment is a powerful one — the idea of living a brilliant and inspirational life, even if it means that one may exit early, “every atom … in magnificent glow.” But there is also a lesson for those who lead in London’s characterization of dust as “dry-rot.”

Years ago, in my consulting days, I saw literally thousands of companies flock to what was then the brilliant new idea of sales automation (later to become customer relationship management). Companies large and small started projects based on the brilliant and compelling business case of happy loyal customers.

But the software purveyors (Siebel Systems, Aurum, Vantive, Saleslogix and the like) did not talk about the mundane, challenging and complex work of organizational change, process re-engineering, behavior change and shifts in metrics. These were not in the dominion of brilliant sweeping ideas that were energizing and enlightening. They required months, sometimes years of careful planning and a fair amount of drudge work and often seemed to move at a glacial pace. Moreover, it was in this less inspirational domain that projects often ran into the challenge of a culture that was not ready for the changes required to get to the state of brilliance described by software vendors and integrators.

Several billions of dollars were written off because, in the simplest form, organizational leaders were more interested in the bright burn of the conceptual comet than understanding the work and change required to make the brilliant concept a new reality. Much of leadership theory today argues for starting with the end in mind — and I agree. Better to focus on the outcome than the problem. But do not confuse the more mundane execution planning, building and implementation with dry rot. The people and organizations that can stay focused on detailed planning and execution are at least as important as those whose brilliance lights up boardroom presentations.

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I would much rather be ashes than dust. And getting the details of my own business done is not nearly as interesting as the work of actually supporting clients. But ignoring those details would mean that I have less and less time for the work that inspires me and an ever-increasing drag on my time and attention.

So by all means, outsource what is for you the drudge work. Create and support the parts of the organization that can execute and keep a sustained focus on the details. Find vendors or partners who will perform those functions. And then remember to celebrate and fete their work in parity with the brilliant idea.

Meteors in space are cold and sterile places — until they come into the atmosphere of the “sleepy planet.” It is only the friction with that planet’s environment that makes the meteor burn bright and, ironically, eventually cool to dust.

Jim Collins, bestselling author (“Good to Great,” “Built to Last,” “How the Mighty Fall”), has described what he calls “Level 5 leadership” as the distinguishing factor responsible for healthy and sustainable growth. Harvard Business Review described Collins’ Level 5 leadership as “the triumph of humility and fierce resolve.” His research showed clearly that the charismatic “meteor, every atom aglow” style of leadership was actually likely to be dangerous to a company. Instead, he describes steady, humble leaders who are focused and workmanlike in their style as most likely to create and grow great companies. And as for being a sleepy planet — just look around. This planet, Earth, is vital with growth and energy and perhaps not so sleepy after all.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 20, 2015.