When Kissinger acted like Yoda

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There's an apocryphal story about a writer working for Henry Kissinger. Each time he was brought a draft, Kissinger would call the next day to ask, “Is this the best you can do?” And each time, the writer took back the draft and tried again. Over and over, this happened. Finally, the exasperated writer answered Kissinger’s question by saying, “Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out. This is the best I can do; I can’t improve one more word.” Kissinger laughed and said, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”

In the modern workplace, this type of trust and letting someone learn from the process of doing his/her job is becoming rare. Many people leaders have to tear their fingers off the keyboard to stop themselves from fixing other people’s issues. Most managers would explain this behavior by pointing to time scarcity and “needing to get it right, right away.” However, this reasoning sets up an unwinnable situation—how will your colleague learn to do the job well if he/she doesn’t have the opportunity to learn?

This behavior gets ingrained early because of a business practice that seems to make a lot of sense—namely, most companies promote people who are good at their jobs, as individual contributors, into management and leadership positions. This isn’t an inherently bad practice, it’s simply incomplete. These new managers are rarely trained in the skills of listening, reflection, question-asking, and collaborative problem-solving—the leadership qualities that lead to flexible and high-performing teams.

Promoting people who are technically proficient, without teaching them the intricacies of how to manage a team of other humans, creates a lot of tension. In a crisis, the new manager wants to show they deserve the promotion and may not ask for the right type of help. The new manager may double down on what they know how to do and rush in to save the day. The work may get done—but there’s a high risk in burning people out and losing the opportunity for everyone to learn.

In today’s workplace, with its always-on mentality and technology, this Superman/woman behavior will no longer fly (pun not intended). What is needed now is a leader who is able to keep sight of the long view, do the right thing in the moment, ask the right questions, and inspire others to choose the challenging actions…in other words, we need more Yodas in the workplace. 

With a team of people leaders who think they have to be superheroes, they may save the day—but they won’t have the headspace to think strategically or create the types of experiences that set your brand apart. 

So, where are you and your fellow leaders on this spectrum of Jedi Masters or well-intentioned but burned out descendants of Krypton? What would it mean for your organization if you replaced 20% of your supermanning with an equal amount of questions and curiosity?

Is how you’re doing it today the best you can do?

To learn more about what “More Yoda, Less Superman” could do for your organization, set up a strategy call with one of our learning designers here.


Jonathan Raymond