I came across one of those philosophical bits that people slap up on Facebook for reasons often known only to them that they apparently got from Eleanor Roosevelt, via Ziglar.com’s twitter feed, that struck me as particularly relevant.  It said:

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

The immediate application, of course, is to filter the hordes of political candidates through this logic.  Which ones seem to spend all of their time bad-mouthing whoever it is they are running against?  Which ones talk about what went wrong when the opponent was in charge?  Which few actually have thoughtful ideas for how things can be better?

Beyond politics, however, I see it as a very powerful prism for assessing leaders, managers and even the culture of the company those leaders have fostered.  These are all matters of degree, of course.  People need to be dealt with and events need to be understood and reacted to in an appropriate manner, but where is the thrust of the organization?

It seems some managers spend all of their time talking about people – who screwed up?  Who gets along with who? What are people’s shortcomings and personality flaws?  These are the managers who never seem to want to leave the org charts alone; always dwelling on people’s mistakes and failures; wanting to discuss and do something about them.  The logic is correct. Managers who do this are not particularly effective and certainly don’t qualify as good leaders.  And companies with enough managers who define their job by constantly probing people for their weaknesses and then taking action inevitably have weak cultures.

Focusing on events is a little better, but only slightly.  When the primary topic of discussion is what happened last week, last month, last year in sales or production there is certainly an opportunity to learn from mistakes and problems.  That focus, however, is one of constantly looking in the rear view mirror.  It rarely leads to much in the way of substantial improvement or change; fosters an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ culture; and worst of all it more often than not devolves into the people focus:  If the evens went well, don’t change anything and if they went poorly blame someone.

It is from ideas that the high octane flows.  Doc Hall at the Compression Institute writes about the power of what he calls a “Vigorous Learning Organization”.  It is essentially an idea driven company with idea driven leaders.  While it seems that most leaders either see their role as chief disciplinarian to assure the status quo is rigorously preserved; or see leadership as mastery of whatever buzzwords and trends are popular at the moment, the folks running these high performing companies are all about ideas – big ideas and little ideas; their own ideas or ideas with possibilities from others in and out of the organization.  They not only conjure up ideas of their own but constantly push the rest of the organization to do the same.  And they recognize that most ideas are not good ones, but they don’t care.  They also realize that even good ideas are rarely complete – they need discussion, debate and polishing so they encourage the organization to embrace all of the ideas coming forth and bat them around, tear them down and build them back up, add them to other incomplete ideas to see if the combination has power.

When leaders are idea driven there is no top end limit to what can be done and where the company can go.  Best of all the organization will tap into the best employees have to offer, and be a very attractive place to work for those who Roosevelt classified as possessing “great minds”.

It will be an interesting exercise to sit back at the next meeting you attend and listen – see who wants to talk about people; and who wants to talk about events; and see if anyone wants to offer up ideas.  It will tell you quite a bit about the management team, and the culture of the company.