The Leaders Notebook

Hard questions, ambiguity and opinion for leaders

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PonderThis: Kill Off Your Darlings

February 20th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

There is a concept among writers that in order to excel, you must be willing to “Kill off your Darlings.”*  Normally this refers to a wonderful turn of phrase, plot device or literary construct that the writer may love, but just does not serve the purpose for which it was designed.  But what about in leadership?

Are there ideas that you hold dear- “darlings” that impede progress?  Dr. Neil Stroul, one of the leadership coaching faculty at Georgtown University used be very fond of pointing out that as people, we are walking bundles of stories and habits.  So, it is a good idea to occasionally spend some time pondering the idea of shedding some of our old stories.

Sometimes it is letting go of an old opinion of a colleague or direct report to reassess.  Often, a strategy or process has outlived its usefulness, or a compensation plan, or an organizational structure.  Perhaps there is a part of your daily routine that is more a comfortable habit than a critical process.  A little time re-examining helps a leader to either reconfirm the importance of daily routine- or find a closely held “darling” that is in the way.

Literature, sacred text, story and myth are full of examples of something small in the way of something for more significant coming forward.  Sometimes, our comfortable current stories can insulate us from much bigger outcomes.  Not every comfortable routine has to go.  Many keep the doors open and the lights on.  But if comfort, history or inertial is all that recommends a current reality, then it is time to ask what else could be more fulfilling, more productive, more powerful or more profitable.

*This quote is often credited to William Faulkner; however, an earlier version come from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” as a warning agaist self indulgence and mediocrity.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Bruce Ervin Wood, PCC, SPHR

    Love your stuff. (What’s the story about picturing your pooch’s butt?)

    I wonder if closing the doors on the places where we feel most competent offers the greatest potential for us to fully be “who we be” in the world. There is power and connection in keeping those doors open.

    What about the doors we purposely keep closed? Our shadows – things that are part of who we be, but would prefer to deny. Debbie Ford writes about accepting our shadows rather than wasting energy in denying them. There’s wholeness, integrity, and engagement in acknowledging our shadows exist and they can protect and serve us provided we can accept them and choose when to employ them.

    More importantly, owning our shadows makes us less likely react/loose center when we see our shadows reflected in the mirror of those around us.

    (Maybe that’s the message of picturing your dog’s derrière – accepting the beauty of all that we are.)

  • I. Barry Goldberg

    @Bruce- Hey! thanks for stopping by, man!

    I do not think that killing your darlings is about closing doors to competence. The writing version of a “little darling” is a clever analogy or turn of phrase that I might love- but does not work. I may desperately want to use it because I think it is clever- but for the sake of the writing, I have to kill it off. In the extreme I can find myself re-engineering an entire piece around that clever analogy, sacrificing the integrity of the work for my “little darling.”

    I am working with a CEO whose “little darling” is the way she runs her annual leadership retreat. She thinks it is great. But she will get another story when she becomes courageous enough to ask her directs for feedback. She will have to be willing for the meeting to have a different form and function- killing off the way she loves to do it.

    BTW- not my dog. There is some of the original theme art in here still. So, some cosmetic changes are yet to come to the new platform. Stay tuned.