A Sign of The Times

Listing out what’s important in developing the right leadership for the future

by Mike Carnell

It has been 48 years since the Five Man Electrical Band wrote and recorded a song called “Signs.”

“Sign, sign—everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

It’s difficult to quantify the overall effect a song like that may have had on signs. What we might want to consider is a rerelease of the song—substituting the word “lists” for “sign.” There seem to be new lists published on the internet daily, even some that claim to be definitive, which you might think would preclude any more lists. But there are always more.

There seems to be no end to these lists. Everybody seems to want to publish one, which should spark two critical questions: Why would anyone want to create a list? And do people want to read them?

The answer to the first question is simple. From an author’s perspective, creating a list can be much simpler than writing an article. Real, substantive data and information are not required for most lists. They’re meant to be quick reads. If they’re in-depth, they’re probably not that good.

A list also requires no real continuity beyond staying on point for the list topic. No segues from one point to the next. Numbered paragraphs are the new segue. The last paragraph doesn’t necessarily need to tie everything together, either. It’s a list, so you simply stop listing things.

The point is not to disparage the idea of a list. If you want to get published in today’s market, it has become relatively simple. Formulate a list.

Remember the reader

Just because writing lists can make things simpler for authors doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for readers—that is, the voice of the customer (VOC). Do readers really want lists? Advertisers seem to like them. Click-through rates have become key performance indicators for many businesses today. There does seem to be data to support that many people are saying yes to lists. That’s at least consistent with what we are seeing on computer screens and paper. Are lists what we want or are they like whale blubber? That is, it’s popular because it’s the only thing on the menu.

Our brains seem to like things organized in lists because that’s what the brain does. It gets straight to the point. Lists are made of sound bites and provide bite-sized facts. In an information-overload world, lists can help make sense of our environment. A short list (not comprehensive) of why people prefer lists includes:

  1. They feel definitive.
  2. The first and last things listed tend to be memorable.
  3. They’re effective for those with short attention spans.
  4. They’re easy to scan.
  5. It’s easy to see how much is left to read.

In a leap of faith, let’s assume that publishers understand their customer (VOC), and authors are relieved because they no longer must write in depth. They simply number their ideas. That is a value stream that would seem to make everyone happy:

  1. Publishers are delivering what customers want.
  2. Authors are published without writing anything of substance.
  3. Customers are getting information in a preferable format.
  4. Advertisers have a vehicle to extract data and analyze what works.

The effect of lists

One of the hottest topics today is leadership. It’s in print, on book covers and featured at conferences. It’s all over the internet and seems to appear constantly in memes—as though the topic can be reduced to a sound bite and an attention-grabbing image.

Returning to the topic of lists, oftentimes those who make the lists can see themselves as something they are not—that is, leaders of a particular topic, discipline or subject matter. That’s not always the case. Leaders must be more than sound bites or an attention-grabbing list, book or presentation. Leaders must be trained effectively.

Many attribute leadership—or inadequate leadership—as the No. 1 reason for all sorts of failures—including as one of the top reasons for Six Sigma failures. If you don’t believe it’s reason No. 1, consider it in the top three reasons. It also seems to be moving up on the list of topics explaining why lean seems to be experiencing failures.

There is ample opportunity to discuss leadership in blogs, discussion forums and social media. There, you get a chance to discover what people know about leadership. After spending time looking at lists, it appears there is this first level of discussion about what leadership should be. We can check the lists and quickly determine that the correct position on this topic is that it must include the terms “level five” or “servant.”

The point here is not to dispute that level five and servant leadership are right or wrong. I do know that after a few internet searches, I understand nothing about either. I also know that if I use those words along with “leadership,” I will appear to be avant-garde—or at least current with the popular terminology. You can look good and not know anything.

If you want to be prepared for an in-depth discussion, you can find lists on level-five leadership and servant leadership characteristics. Here’s one list describing the characteristics of servant leadership:1

  1. Listening.
  2. Empathy.
  3. Healing.
  4. Awareness.
  5. Persuasion.
  6. Conceptualization.
  7. Foresight.
  8. Stewardship.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people.
  10. Building community.

The list for level five is different, so you must decide between servant leadership and level-five leadership. Or look for another list.

This drilldown can go on for quite some time. At the end of the day, you have a collection of sound bites with no continuity of thought. Then we wonder why we have the leadership we have. We have enabled superficiality through the information we have made available and the format in which it is available.

Developing leadership

There are some basic data available if you want to understand what it’s going to take to develop leadership in your organization. You’re looking for an outcome, so you must decide what is the best way to accomplish that outcome. Consider the data in Table 1,2 which rates three of the highest-scoring training modalities—in a list of 23 categories of data.

Table 1

On a five-point rating scale—in which one is 0% of total training and five is more than 75%—instructor-led classroom rates a 3.4—21% more than even e-learning modules, which rates a 2.8.3

The “Use” column is probably subjective. An organization with younger employees might be more inclined to offer e-learning. Effectiveness—not use—is really the point.

Organizations must protect themselves and their employees. We have made information available that allows people with superficial knowledge to appear intelligent and well-educated. We have classes to teach how to speak in sound bites to facilitate this perception. There’s even a list—of course—of things to do to make yourself appear smarter than you really are.4

Training and mentorship

Your organization’s leadership is too important to the organization’s future to simply hand it over to people who are taking shortcuts on critical issues. Educate them—and educate them effectively. Take the time to ask questions to understand the effect—that means take measurements before and after training.

Table 1 shows that mentoring is the most effective thing you can do. It should be the least expensive because you should be able to tap into the current leadership team. If you look at your current leadership team and can’t find a mentor, your organization is running on borrowed time.

Remember the words of Jim Collins: “In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with ‘where,’ but with ‘who.’ They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”5

Be sure to remember the entire quote. Most people only stick to the sound bite “get the right people on the bus.”


  1. MindTools editors, “Servant Leadership: Putting Your Team First and Yourself Second, MindTools, www.mindtools.com/pages/article/servant-leadership.htm.
  2. David Wentworth, “Top Spending Trends for Training, 2016-2017,” Training, Nov. 30, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/training-spend-trends.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Travis Bradberry, “10 Research-Proven Tricks to Make You Seem Smarter Than You Are,” TalentSmart, http://tinyurl.com/talent-smart-tricks.
  5. James C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, HarperBusiness, 2001.

Mike Carnell is president and CEO of CS International in New Braunfels, TX. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Arizona State University in Tempe. Carnell is a member of ASQ.

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