Do Nothing! A book review by Bob Morris

Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader
J. Keith Murnighan
Portfolio/The Penguin Group (2012)

How to lead more effectively by doing less and helping others to do more…and do it better

The title of this book attracts attention but is misleading. It implies that J. Keith Murnighan emphatically recommends that leaders literally do nothing. On the contrary, he has written a book—and a quite valuable book – in which he explains how to lead more effectively by doing less so that others can more…and do it better as they “learn by doing” rather than by admonition or passive observation. As is also true of countless other business books, the subtitle is far more informative than is the title. “In other words,” Murnighan suggests, “stop working and start leading.”

As he notes, here’s a familiar challenge: “Things are simpler when other people are in charge and you don’t have to make big decisions. 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 naturally fall back on what’s familiar and certain – that is, what they know how to do. Unfortunately, this can be truly counterproductive.” Why? There are some tasks best completed by a leader; most other tasks can – and should – be completed by others (i.e. direct reports). No one person can do everything. Leaders should commit most of their time and energy to being facilitators and orchestators.

I agree with Murnighan’s analogy: “When things are really clicking, work will be like the performance of a great Beethoven symphony, with the notes in the right place, the crescendos coming on time, and at the end, a feeling of exhilaration at your collective accomplishments. Leaders and their teams never experience this kind of thrill when leaders do too much.” Quite true. The results are even worse, however, if leaders do nothing.

Here are several of the passages in Murnighan’s book that caught my eye:

o  A ‘litmus test” to determine whether or not you are doing too much (Pages 18-19)
o  “Five Natural Problems of Individuals as Leaders” (40-51)
o  A Japanese proverb (“Every stranger is a thief”) and a rational model for building trust (86-88)
o  “Door Fasteners” and “Dental Work”: Two examples of why “Effective leadership is lonely” (128-132)
o  Defining characteristics of a “profit-maximizing company” (161-163)
o  Mini-profile of Norbert Brainin, the first violinist of the Amadeus String Quartet (183-187)

No brief commentary such as this one can do full justice to the scope and depth of information, insights, and counsel that Keith Murnighan provides within this volume. One of the core principles that he affirms throughout the narrative is rightsizing. However, it remains for each reader to determine the nature and extent of what is appropriate to her or his own circumstances insofar as two critical issues are concerned: division of labor and allocation of resources.  The challenge and (yes) the opportunity is to determine correct proportionality (i.e. rightsizing) at any given time, in any given situation. That is a determination that only a leader should make, albeit after consultation with associates, and it will ultimately determine the success or failure of the given enterprise.

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