J. Keith Murnighan earned his Ph.D. from Purdue University and is currently the Harold H. Hines Jr. Distinguished Professor of Risk Management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He also teaches in Kellogg’s Executive MBA programs around the world, including Hong Kong, Germany, Toronto, and Miami. His courses address leadership, negotiation, team building, decision-making, trust, and conflict. He has received numerous awards for his teaching and his research. In 2006 he received the Distinguished Educator Award from the Academy of Management, a Career Achievement award. In 2010 he received an Honorary Doctor of Science in Economics for distinguished contributions to Management and Organization Studies from the London Business School. He is a widely published researcher, primarily in organizational behavior, psychology, and economics.
His books include Bargaining Games (William Morrow, 1992), The Art of High-Stakes Decision-Making (with John Mowen; John Wiley & Sons, 2002), and most recently, Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader (Portfolio/The Penguin Group, 2012). He teaches regularly in executive programs in the US, Canada, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He is an active consultant and trainer and has worked with many major corporations, including the American Dental Association, Allscripts, Aon, Caterpillar, CDW, DHL, Ernst & Young, Kraft, Motorola, the National Wildlife Federation, Pfizer, ToysRUs, the United States Olympic Committee, and the Young Presidents Organization, among others.
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Morris: Before discussing Do Nothing!, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Murnighan: That’s an easy one – I was fortunate to be the child of two wonderful parents. My Dad was a lawyer who truly cared about people and justice; my mother was a Northwestern grad who made sure that my brothers and sister and I always used correct grammar! They were active, intellectually curious people who loved the world and the people in it. They encouraged us to work hard and follow our interests, and they were always there for moral and substantive support.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Murnighan: This is much tougher, as I’ve had the great pleasure to work with an amazing array of outstanding people. In fact, I hesitate to start naming people because I know that I will leave important people out of the list, and that would be inexcusable. Instead, I’ll give you a flavor of the experiences that they provided. Through high school I attended Catholic schools in the Chicago area: they had a strong focus on developing us both intellectually and as human beings. I went off to college wanting to be more extroverted and independent, and I was able to sample a wide array of different classes, throughout the sciences and the humanities. I continued sampling many different domains in graduate school: even though I was enrolled in social psychology, I took classes in economics and in the business school.
These diverse pursuits were always encouraged and supported and allowed me to take a broad view of the social sciences. My first academic job, at the University of Illinois, was absolutely phenomenal: great colleagues, a research-oriented environment that valued good teaching, and a tremendously supportive administration. Once again, I had the freedom to follow my own interests, and I was influenced by a great set of scholars who all were excited about what we could all learn about how and why human beings behave the way they do, both at work and in broader social contexts.
After 19 years there I moved to the University of British Columbia, which helped to expand my international focus. Then I was lucky enough to settle at the Kellogg School at Northwestern where I am surrounded by people who combine outstanding scholarship and outstanding teaching – a rare and wonderful combination. More than that, I have had the great good fortune to work with amazing graduate students, at Illinois, UBC, and Kellogg – who have brought new ideas and tremendous energy to our joint endeavors. Finally, Kellogg helped open many, many doors to motivated, insightful executives who willing shared their ideas and their stories. This helped round out the practical side of my ideas. In other words, I’ve been particularly blessed during my career.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Murnighan: It was absolutely necessary – I would not be in my current position without it.
Morris: What do you know now about business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?
Murnighan: I was a young assistant professor with very little experience in business when I first started teaching. As my very successful uncle once told me, “you don’t know anything about business.” Most of my classes were focused on general social science and what we know about people rather than about work situations, so I was able to do that job reasonably well. Over time, I have had many opportunities to speak with literally thousands of executives and have visited a multitude of companies. Thus, although I primarily work in academia, I have had extensive experience interviewing and working with a host of business professionals. This has been invaluable.
Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.
Murnighan: Two of my favorite books on leadership are not business books. The first, Sacred Hoops, by Phil Jackson, tells the story of the Chicago Bulls’ first three basketball championships. Jackson was their coach. This tremendously insightful book mixes stories on basketball, teamwork, Zen Buddhism, and Native American culture; every few pages there are great insights on leadership. My second favorite book, It’s Your Ship, by Michael Abrashoff, tells the story of his taking over as captain and leading the sailors of the USS Benfold. Like Sacred Hoops, it presents one great insight after another.
These two books show how great leadership can transcend situations even as it embraces a task’s particular demands. In Jackson’s case, for instance, he had the difficult task of leading twelve enormously talented basketball players who often had sizable egos. In addition, the nature of the game is that only five players can play at any one time – seven must sit on the bench, and each of the seven wishes that he was on the floor playing. Thus, the structure of the game means that there is internal competition among a team’s members about who gets more or less playing time. If this is not bad enough, there is only one ball. Thus, the five people on the floor often compete to determine who has the ball – because doing wondrous things with the ball leads to great fortune and fame. Thus, even the five players who have the luxury of being on the floor sometimes compete with their own teammates to control the ball. Phil Jackson repeatedly solved these problems, in unnatural ways.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
Murnighan: Publisher’s Weekly’s review of my book cited Lao-Tzu. His philosophy is entirely consistent with my own. In my terms, great leaders understand what their team members can do well; they do what they can to facilitate their team members’ performance; they orchestrate (a bit) to make sure that C follows B and B follows A; and then they get out of the way. This gives people the chance to show off what they can do and to be proud of their accomplishments.
Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Murnighan: Self-awareness is a key characteristic for leaders. Know your strengths; know your weaknesses. Take advantage of the former and do what you can to shore up the latter, often by getting assistance from someone else, because no one can do everything and no leader has ever had all of the characteristics that we look for in great leaders.
Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
Murnighan: One of my favorite videos depicts the process that the people at IDEO use to create a new product. During that video, their team’s facilitator, Brian Skillman, responds to a question about whether he should take over. He says, “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.” A team that works well together can utilize the ideas of many people. It should be no surprise that two heads are better than one. Whether that actually happens, however, is often up to a team’s leader.
Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?’” Your response?
Murnighan: I don’t believe that companies should try to make mistakes. But they should learn from them and move on.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Do Nothing! When and why did you decide to write it?
Murnighan: People always complain about leaders who micro-manage. Yet it is clear that this continues to happen, all the time. In 1960 Douglas McGregor wrote an influential book in which he described Theory X and Theory Y leaders. Theory X leaders believe that people need to be watched and punished when they do something wrong; Theory Y leaders believe that people will do the right thing when they are given the chance. Over 50 years ago, he noted that many leaders try to be Theory Y leaders but they often fail and that Theory X is the default that results. Fifty-two years later and we still haven’t learned how to harness Theory Y? As I pondered this question, I realized that these problems must be part of our nature as human beings. Once I made this realization, it was easy to see how (1) our ancestors had to be active to survive, and we reflect them in so many of our actions, and (2) people get promoted to leadership positions because of the things they have done. Thus, why would they stop doing them? These two things interfere with great leadership: our natural tendencies are to be controlling, to intervene, and to act more than we should; and we naturally repeat what we have been rewarded for. I can’t help thinking that we can do better than this.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Murnighan: I’m happy to say that I didn’t suffer from whiplash while writing Do Nothing! But one thing I realized as I talked about this material in my classes: leaders too often think of their own actions, naturally, before they think of their team’s possible reactions. This is completely wrong. Thus, I used ideas from Isaac Newton, the famous physicist, and turned them around to form what I call The Leadership Law: think first about the reactions that you’d like to achieve and only then formulate the actions that you should take in hopes of achieving them. This subtle shift in emphasis was a revelation for me and one that I hope leaders take to heart. It’s a subtle change in how they approach their jobs, but an essential one.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Murnighan: The biggest shift was in its organization and its chapter titles – and this is all due to my wonderful agent, Jim Levine. He suggested that I put the Do Nothing! chapter first, and that each of the chapter titles be contrarian, as this is the basic approach in the book. I’m not a contrarian kind of person, but he was exactly right in realizing that my approach to leadership really does fly in the face of most of the books that are out there.
Morris: As I indicate in my review of Do Nothing! Fir various Amazon websites, I think its title is, at best, misleading. However, it [begin italics] does [end italics] attract attention. Here’s my question: When is it better to do nothing, literally, than to take action? Why?
Murnighan: Leaders need to get out of the way when they have talented people who know what they are doing. It’s simple as that. Realizing this should help leaders move toward that point: to get there, they should facilitate and orchestrate and help their team members be as productive as they can possibly be. Once your team members are really good, there is no need for a leader to get involved.
Morris: Which of our “natural tendencies” are most likely to “lead us astray”? Why?
Murnighan: Have you ever met a Type A person? Obviously, we all have. We see them in organizations everywhere. It is very hard for people who are naturally compelled to act and who have been rewarded for it to step back and let other people do the job. But it is far more effective when they do.
Morris: Why do you focus on leaders (a) at all levels, (b) of all kinds, and (c) their immediate teams?
Murnighan: The basic unit in organizations is a leader and his/her direct reports. From the CEO, who leads a top management team, to the newest manager with leadership responsibilities, this is the basic unit. If leaders can facilitate their team members’ performance, they can do what leaders are supposed to do: think strategically, plan for the next project, develop new initiatives, etc. This can happen at any level in an organization.
Morris: Here’s a passage in the Preface that caught my eye: “If more and more leaders of more and more teams start doing less and, as a result, start being more and more effective, the overall impact could be incredible.” What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture in which this is most likely to occur?
Murnighan: Trust is an absolute key ingredient. Everyone knows that you should hire good people, i.e., people with skills who are trustworthy. Too many leaders don’t take the next step: they don’t fully trust the people they have hired, even when they have great reports documenting a new hire’s skills and trustworthiness. I’m not suggesting that a leader should hire new people and never see them again. Instead, too many leaders trust too little and when they do, their people feel micro-managed.
Morris: Early in the first chapter, you observe, “The key insight here is simple: you will be more effective leader if, rather than doing the work yourself, you let other people do it. In other words, stop working and start leading…Taking over as a leader means that you must depart from the comfort of the status quo, and the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty that accompany your excitement really are noxious. To avoid these feelings, people normally fall back on what’s familiar and certain – that is, what they know how to do. Unfortunately, this can be truly counterproductive.”
Here’s a two-part question: Any especially important do’s and don’ts when a leader initiates this new relationship with direct reports? What is probably the single biggest obstacle to avoid or overcome, once the new relationship is operational
Murnighan: First off, new leaders should do their homework and learn as much as they can about their new teammates, before they take over. Then it pays to use one of a leader’s best strategies and do something really simple: ask questions. A sincere question gets three positive outcomes: it conveys respect; it builds trust; and it gets information. Second, there are all sorts of internal obstacles that a new leader must overcome, but one of the most prominent is fear: now that they are responsible for the team, they naturally feel like they must take control of things, and this is wildly counterproductive, as their taking control leads to a natural, negative reaction among their team members.
Morris: For those who have not as yet read Do Nothing!, you identify and then discuss five “natural problems of individuals as leaders. Please explain how to solve each barrier to effective action. First, egocentrism
Murnighan: This is the first of those internal obstacles I referred to in the last question. Egocentrism refers to the fact that, naturally, we are the centers of our own universe. We can’t help this. We see through our own eyes, we hear through our own ears, etc. – not through other people’s. My focus on Asking Questions is a great way to solve this problem because, when you ask a question, the focus shifts from you to your team member. They are now the one with the information, and they can provide the impetus for your next action. When they see that happen, they can also see that you are not letting your ego get in the way of performance, and that they can have an important influence on what you all do.
Morris: Next, having an “empathy gap”
Murnighan: An empathy gap is a concept that my colleague Loran Nordgren has been extensively studying; it refers to the fact that, unless we are experiencing a particular emotion first-hand, we really can’t fully understand its impact. For instance, do any of us really know what it feels like to live on three hours sleep for an extended period of time? It turns out that people who don’t have this direct experience have a gap in their ability to empathize with people who are experiencing it. This suggests that leaders may not be able to empathize with the demands that their team members are actually facing. An attempt at a solution to this problem is to work hard at taking other people’s perspectives, i.e., really get into their shoes. This is easier said than done, but even attempting to do this can go a long way.
Morris: Then, focusing on one’s own actions
Murnighan: We can’t help thinking about what we will do next as leaders. To get around this, I hope that people can adopt The Leadership Law: first think of the reactions you would like to see from your team members and only after you have identified your hoped-for outcomes should you start thinking about how you can mold your own actions to achieve them.
Morris: Then, transparency
Murnighan: The problem of leadership transparency results when we think that our team members truly understand what we have said, why we have said it, and how important it is – to us! In fact, they have their own point of view and they can’t get into our shoes any better than we can get into theirs. A solution to this is what communication specialists call active listening. When a complex job needs to be done, tell a team member about it and then ask him/her to explain to you what you just said. Go back and forth until both of you are on the same page about the job. This assures that you will be heard and understood and, during the process, your team member might help you refine the goals or the task even more
Morris: Finally, “double-interact”
Murnighan: The concept of the double interact is this: when we as leaders interact with our team members, we don’t always realize how our sometimes tremendously subtle actions can lead to their reactions. Thus, to take just one example, a leader with low expectations might implicitly convey those expectations to a team member who may then be discouraged and, as a result, perform less well than they otherwise might. I suggest two solutions here. The first is a metaphorical balcony – this is a suggestion that William Ury presented in his book Getting Past No. Create a ‘balcony’ for yourself so that you can watch how everything at work unfolds – including seeing yourself in the action, at that moment. This kind of ‘mental distancing’ helps leaders get a more objective sense of themselves and their team’s interactions so that they can orchestrate future actions, especially their own, more effectively. A second solution for the double interact is the first rule for a CEO: walk the floor. Make sure that you connect with your team members frequently so that they get used to your communication and you get used to theirs. This also helps you to be open-minded enough to observe skills that you may not have know that they have.
Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of the title of Chapter 3, “Start at the End.”
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “Do Nothing!” leaders insofar as trusting others is concerned?
Murnighan: Here’s what great leaders actually do to be able to trust people more. First, they do their homework: they find out everything that they can about their team members (within reason!) so that they have a basis for trusting them. Also, they take a risk and trust their team members more than their team members expected to be trusted. Think of the reaction that this creates for new leaders, e.g., “My new boss trusted me more than my old boss did, and I worked with that old boss for over three years!”
Morris: Please explain what you mean when recommending that leaders “release control deviously.”
Murnighan: I like the idea of structural control, i.e., putting a structure in place that influences people even when you are not around. Incentives, locks on doors, and architecture are all forms of structural control. They all allow a leader to be absent but still have an influence on a team’s behaviors (sub rosa).
Morris: What are the most valuable lessons to be learned from cardiac surgery teams?
Murnighan: These teams include highly trained surgeons as well as surgical technicians, i.e., people who have markedly different status. Yet they must still be well coordinated to succeed. Thus, it is incumbent upon the surgeon to orchestrate and facilitate because, even though the surgeon is doing the most important things during surgery, success may be determined by the people who are doing the least important things. In essence, this is a situation in which even the weakest link is tremendously critical. Surgeons who respect their team members, invite their input, and work with them can benefit from the synergies of a team, and their patients will reap the benefits.
Morris: How specifically can leaders ensure that members of their team believe they have a voice [begin italics] and [end italics] are psychologically safe?
Murnighan: The key here is perception: your team members themselves must feel that they have voice and be psychologically safe. This means that leaders must often bend over backwards to show them that their voice matters and that they are safe. How to do this operationally? #1- Always entertain suggestions and ideas, even when they seem totally crazy. Ask questions to see if there is more to an idea than meets the eye, and always explain why you haven’t followed a suggestion if you can’t. #2 – Don’t just invite comments – invite questions, ideas, and especially disagreement. Your team members should know that they not only can tell you when you have a bad idea, but that you truly appreciate it.
Morris: What is the “Leadership Dilemma” and how best to avoid or resolve it?
Murnighan: The Leadership Dilemma results because most people want to have voice and feel safe in their work teams – in essence, they want their work teams to be democratic – but they see their leader as overly controlling, which is a leader’s natural response to their feelings of responsibility. As I noted earlier, I like structural solutions that help you retain control even as you are influencing people. Thus, you don’t need to be in people’s faces all the time; instead, quiet leaders who act with subtlety tend to be most effective.
Morris: You have devised superb chapter titles. Here’s another that caught my eye: “Bear down warmly.” Please explain.
Murnighan: Thanks – I’m glad you like them. Years of research have told us that leaders need to push people on their tasks – otherwise they won’t achieve as much as they possibly can – and they must sincerely care about them as people – they must care about their careers, their families, and their personal goals. How can you push people while you simultaneously show them that you care about them? This is another dilemma, and one that can be solved with an old concept that we don’t discuss enough: tough love, i.e., care enough about your team members to push them to their maximum potential. They won’t like you for it at the time, but they will be better for it in the long run, and they will certainly respect you for doing it.
Morris: I share your high regard for Carol Dweck and her research on mindsets. In Chapter 7, you provide “A 6-Step Plan to Encourage Leaders to Adopt a Growth Mind-Set.” Which one of these steps do leaders seem to have the greatest difficulty completing? Why?
Murnighan: In fact, all six are difficult for people because they ask them to step out of their comfort zones. Let’s take number 5 as one example: Identify (a) 3 times when you saw someone learn to do something they thought they could never do, (b) why this occurred, and (c) how their doubt might have influenced their potential. How many leaders are likely to do this on their own? These are not every-day, ordinary activities: they require conscious thought and effort. Also, the goal here is to change the way that leaders think about people, in a very broad sense. Can people learn and grow? Too many people think that we can’t, i.e., that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. In our ever-changing world, it would be devastating if that were true. Thankfully it isn’t, but it still takes considerable effort to change those mindsets.
Morris: In your opinion, how can leaders with a [begin italics] growth [end italics] mindset help direct reports (and even peers) to develop one?
Murnighan: “Did you ever expect to see someone like Sandy do that? Wasn’t that amazing?” These are the kinds of reactions that leaders need to share with their team members: they need to note important advances that any member of the team makes. Note also, that by presenting it as a question, a leader can involve their team members even more in seeing the potential around them.
Morris: What’s wrong with having profits maximization as an organization’s strategic goal?
Murnighan: It is not sustainable. You can’t be a great leader unless you love what you do, and when you love what you do you naturally want to share it with other people. Thus, if I create a wonderful new product or service only because it will make money, I don’t really love that product or service and I’ll take the wrong approach to selling it. In contrast, if I love what I do, I want to share it and have other people get value from my ideas. That is sustainable, because if you are creating value rather than profits, everyone profits, and the people you work with – your team members, your suppliers, and your customers – will want to come back and interact with you again.
Morris: What is unnatural about what you characterize as “unnatural leaders”? Please explain whether or not those qualities are desirable in [begin italics] all [end italics].
Murnighan: My last chapter describes seven unnatural leaders, i.e., truly successful people who do things differently. Each of them does things that are not natural – and I would suggest that their success is at least partially the result of them not following all of their natural tendencies. In essence, they put other people first, they trust, they follow The Leadership Law – and none of these things come naturally to most of us.
Morris: You discuss several great leaders in Chapter 9. One of them is Phil Jackson whom I have admired since his rookie year with the Knicks in the NBA. In your opinion, what valuable lessons can be learned from his career as a coach?
Murnighan: He knows the game, obviously. He also gets to know his players and he respects them tremendously. He does what he can to prepare them for games, and then he lets them play. How many other coaches have you seen who actually sit down during a game? Who don’t scream at their players while their players are trying to do their jobs? He provides all sorts of wonderful lessons about doing things differently.
Morris: Let’s say that a CEO in a Fortune 500 company has read and then (hopefully) re-read Do Nothing! He is eager to transform his company’s culture into one within which executives thrive who do less and lead more. Where to [begin italics] begin [end italics]? Any especially important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind? Please explain.
Murnighan: Let’s start with goals: what do you really want to accomplish. Let’s start at the end and work back to the present. Thus, you must devise a strategy to achieve your goals. Second, how do you fit in this picture? Where and when will you be needed and how can you step back and let other people take over? In other words, how can you get yourself out of the implementation of your strategy so that other people can do more? This will allow you to keep tabs on how things are going and to orchestrate and facilitate. Finally, trust your professionals to do what they can do. They may not do it the way that you would do it; they may not do it as well as you could do it. But they may do it well enough, and that’s usually sufficient. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough.
Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Do Nothing!, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?
Murnighan: You can’t do it by yourself. This is a simple truism that too many people don’t take to heart. They understand that it is certainly true, but they don’t always understand its inevitable consequences and the strategies that they need to take as a result. I hope that leaders will see that the principles of Do Nothing! leadership will help them accomplish everything that they hope to achieve, and maybe even more, and they can do this more effectively by taking themselves out of an action-oriented mentality.
Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
Murnighan: You did ask me why I wrote this book but I’m not sure that I answered that question as directly as I could have. Thus, I’d like to do that in closing. I wrote this book in the hopes that it would open doors to leaders everywhere. Leadership does not have to be hard – too often we make it harder than it needs to be. Sometimes we can’t seem to help ourselves. But I hope that the ideas in Do Nothing! help leaders see how they can do less and achieve more. Not only will they benefit, but their team members and their organizations will, too.
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Keith cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites: