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Should you walk the talk, or talk the walk?

Nov 29, 2010 Business Daily, Leadership

“Managers are repeatedly urged to practice what they preach so others will take their preaching seriously and try to implement it in their own work. Hypocrisy is the culprit here and to exorcise it, managers are told to “walk the talk”…
Part of the reason people fail when they try to walk the talk is that their intention was doomed from the start. Failure was inevitable because they have things backward. Walking is the means to find things worth talking about.”

KARL WEICK in ‘Strategy Bites Back’ (2005)

I’m back to my favourite strategy book for a second week – ‘Strategy Bites Back’: as irreverent and unconventional a business book as you can find.

Karl Weick has a talent for turning conventional wisdom on its head. We should not just practice what we preach, he urges; we should also practice so that we know WHAT to preach in the first place. The idea that we must walk our talk is therefore limited; we also have to walk in order to know what to talk about!

This point is commonly observed. Most leaders and managers think they have their ‘talk’ just right: they rarely question their use of conventional wisdom, common assumptions, flawed analysis. That side of things must be correct, because they are leaders who know what they are doing. What they must do is be seen to set an example, walk around demonstrating their beliefs.

A great deal of insincerity emerges from this practice. As Weick points out, managers are often seen ‘walking’ prematurely, on behalf of a ‘talk’ they barely understand. It would be far better to ‘walk’ first – to engage with employees, customers and other parts of their business ecosystem in order to learn more about their world and its complexities. The talking should come later, once insights have been generated and ideas crystallized.

This touches on one of the problems of leadership: that we start to assume our thoughts are all correct and infallible, and all we have to do is demonstrate them to our adoring publics. Wrong! In today’s business environment, we are all winging it: we are repeatedly getting things wrong and having to start over. Nothing wrong with that – but we have to be able to admit it is true.

Walking around talking about things like values and attitudes is all very well, provided we believe in them in the first place. Walking around talking about strategic issues we have barely understood is more problematic. Strategy these days is a contact sport: you don’t do what you’ve learned in a classroom or book; you learn by doing things on the ground, repeatedly and experimentally. The best strategic thinkers these days are not the ones who fill their heads with positioning maps and value curves; they are the ones who get down personally and try things out.

Look at the “telco wars” that are so preoccupying us in Kenya these days. Do you imagine any of the major players can have a complete and comprehensive picture of what their strategy should be in the coming five years? That they have it all mapped out in their heads, and all that is needed is for managers to walk the talk? That’s not even remotely true. Any team that thinks it can predict the complex interaction of exploding technology, rapidly changing customer behaviour and unusual competitor moves, is kidding itself.

In telecommunications (and very likely in your industry), this is a time to be on the ground walking and feeling the fast-changing pulse of the market for yourself. So shed your old-world presumptions and clear your head, and start walking. Listen and observe more than you talk. You need to walk simply to find out what is worth talking about.

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