Paint-by-Numbers Leadership

I recently had the chance to sit down with several leaders in an organization to learn more about their company’s approach to leadership. When I asked one leader to describe his company’s management and leadership style, he said they had a paint-by-numbers management team.

When he said that, my mind started running 90 miles an hour. I’ve never heard of this description, but boy have I seen and experienced it! Remember painting by numbers as a kid? It was a way for us to look like an artist. Where the picture said #4 we painted with color #4. If you stayed in the lines you ended up with a decent picture. The downside to painting by the numbers, though, was that you couldn’t paint anything else on your own. You had to stick with the numbers and stay within the lines.

A paint-by-numbers leadership approach means that:

  • There is a specific approach or formula to solving every leadership issue. If I encounter A, then I do B. Problem solved. (Not really.)
  • There is a lack of navigation and the feelings and style of the leader are not considered.
  • We don’t adjust to the conditions. Instead, we just attack the problem with the standard solutions or tools we have on hand.
  • We take a theory-based approach versus a reality-based approach.

The problem with paint-by-numbers leadership is that it’s not really leading! It’s reactionary and can even become robotic. The challenges that our people encounter rarely fit into a neat box with specific symptoms that will be easily resolved with the pre-planned prescribed cure, no matter our good intentions.

So how do we break free of the paint-by-numbers approach? Here are some suggestions:

  • Lead to the conditions. Flex your style based on what’s going on right now. There are times to encourage, and times to challenge. There are times to be aggressive and times to be conservative. The way we lead our team differs when sales are up and business is booming than when sales are down and the market is lousy.
  • Lead to the person. Just like we vary our approach based on the conditions, we also lead our people differently.
  • Understand how to stay balanced. Add a little tenderness to your toughness. Know when to be smart on the outside or on the inside.

In the end we all want to be an artist who doesn’t need numbers to tell us where and what to paint. As leaders we want to be able to blend our colors and paint outside of the lines!

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