The Limits Of Lists For Leaders

If you read any books or articles about improving management and leadership, you may have noticed that many of them feature a list of actions for you to take in order to achieve better results.

To give you just a few examples, there are the seven characteristics in Collins’ Good to GreatCovey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Dan Pink’s list of three things that motivate people.

Lists aren’t just used to describe effective methods or laudable attributes in business; you have no doubt seen endless lists of steps you can take to lose weight, improve your health, or reduce stress. In the realm of improving education, you have the Bill Gates Foundation’s list of the “7 C’s” of effective teachers, and if you really like lists, you can visit the Common Core Website.

There is a lot to be said for the use of lists. In repetitive yet complex tasks, Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto explores the benefits of using checklists to avoid common medical errors.

Lists of instructional steps (and “how-to” books) have been around for a long time, but the fascination with the efficacy of reducing tasks to lists really took off in the 1940s with the advent of Training Within Industry (TWI).

TWI’s “Job Instruction” element was designed to take unskilled workers and quickly bring them up to productive speed on specific narrow tasks, in order to replace the factory workers with broader skill sets who had joined the Army. It worked well — it was key to Allied victory, and went on to be the beginnings of Toyota Lean Manufacturing.

But here is the problem with lists: They are, in essence, a kind of “thought machine.” And while a well-defined list can often achieve greater efficiency in a given process, there are some things, like artistic endeavors, that cannot be reduced to a list. Some activities are far greater than the sum of their technical parts, and a list will not get you there, no matter how precise and exhaustive it may be.

When I was a young bass player, I was put through a “learning process” that was all designed to be “quick and easy.” But at some point this reduced-to-a-list approach actually became an impediment. I had placed too much faith in an external process, and not enough in my own abilities. There was a day when I had to choose between one or the other. There is, of course, a “process” in developing craft, but the really important stuff, i.e., the art of it, no one can really define what that is. The same goes for the arts of teaching and leading.

Following a list of steps is completely different from acting purely on your own “gut feeling” and initiative. They are mutually exclusive concepts; you have to pick one approach or the other. Lists have many advantages, but if you become overly dependent upon the graven images of lists, this will inevitably create upper limits of performance; you will never be better than the list. Further, when list machines are elevated to high authority, they have the unfortunate effect of inviting passive, unemotional, “disengaged” machine-like behavior in response. We act as we are acted upon.

Machines in the form of lists have immense appeal. They offer protection from having one’s vulnerability exposed, but that selling point is also their greatest failing. Without the exposure of vulnerability, and its attendant trust energy, there can be no emotional engagement, and without emotional engagement, you cannot achieve top performance. You have to pick either active emotional engagement or passive disengagement. There is no middle. Again, they are mutually exclusive approaches.

However, since lists are so popular, and since so many books and articles conclude with a list of steps that promise to manifest quick improvement, I will do my best to follow that form, thus:

1) Hopefully, this article has created some awareness of the industrial nature — and the inherent limitations — of lists, and you can now see them for the finite limited machines that they are;

2) Instead of offering yet another list-system as a fix, I shall do to you what some great conductors once did to me: I offer my perception of you, seeing you (to the extent that my own consciousness allows) as a divine infinite being with capabilities far beyond what either of us can fully comprehend, and

3) For what it is worth, I give you my permission to act as such.

Now of course we can always share stories of hard experience, and I always like to make people laugh with stories of my “fell-flat-on-my-face-but-learned-something-about-accepting-my-imperfections” experiences. But just publishing a list, and thereby implying that the highest levels of human endeavor can be achieved by following a list of instructions, is counter to all experience. Transcending the safety of lists and systems requires a leap of individual artistic faith, and that leap is one that all great teachers, artists, and leaders must take.

About the Author: Justin Locke speaks about management issues from a bass player’s perspective. For more, visit his website at

photo credit: JoelMontes via photopin cc