Write drunk, edit sober. Good advice for leaders?

“Write drunk, edit sober” is something Ernest Hemingway allegedly once said. I think it is good advice, except maybe for alcoholics! The kind of writing that tends to inspire me is writing that has passion, flow and somehow captures grand ideas in a way that imprints them on both head and heart. It is writing that inspires and creates a shift in thoughts, attitudes and behavior. We know we have been part of some special dance when we encounter such writing and we are sorry when it ends. We read the final word wanting more and somehow feel as though a good friend has left us. I am often amazed at the ability of individuals to craft words into something magical and am also slightly envious of such a gift. Good writing is hard work and usually the easier it reads, the harder the work that has gone into the piece!

Good leadership is a little like good writing. It takes hard work. It can appear both effortless and magical all at the same time.  But the wise know it is not. Good leadership is cultivated and is intentional. The formula, if there is such a thing, differs depending on context as time, place and the situation all shape the leadership need. There can be no simple ‘A, B, C’ to leadership, although many, including myself, try to impose form and shape to something that defies both. Leadership is both art and science; it involves both head and heart. Authentic leadership relies on coherency between one’s inner and outer worlds, it is dependent on the synergy between values and actions.

I am concerned with what passes as ‘leadership development’ in many companies and the efforts of many business schools. Often the guardians of such programmes have given in to the demands to measure, the need for instant returns and the unwillingness to embrace discomfort in the learning process. The result is lots of activity and investment but a hollow feeling that it is all some sort of cunning board game in what it takes to get ahead. Lots of information and knowledge but with little application and meaningful change. Decisive moments in the leadership journey are held hostage by well defined end objectives and so the battle can be lost before it has really begun. I’m just surprised that the charade has lasted as long as it has done.

If we are serious about effective leadership in a changing world, we will need to rethink many of our current models. Both the theory and practice of leadership in this changing world need to adapt. We will need to ask hard questions and look in unlikely places for the answers. We will need to look beyond the scope of our current vision and be willing to try new things and accept failure as an essential part of the learning process. We will need to accept that the wisdom that has got us here cannot be the wisdom that gets us to where we need to be. Often all this is far easier said than done. It will require a willingness to not only learn but to also  ‘unlearn’ and ‘relearn’. I suspect that for many in leadership those latter two prove more troublesome.

Write drunk, edit sober. Maybe Hemingway knew something we don’t. He certainly knew a thing or two about writing. Both extremes are needed – the uninhibited passion as well as the objective attention to detail. Leadership is both gut and deliberate; both head and heart. That is just why it is so difficult.

Write drunk, edit sober…I’ll let you ponder further just what this might mean for leadership. Besides the obvious humour that such pondering invites…there also might be some valuable insights that are yet to be captured!

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