Book review: Do Nothing! by J Keith Murnighan

Leaders shouldn't try to do everything, says the author. Nigel Nicholson enjoys a whimsical look at why less is more.

by Nigel Nicholson
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2012


Do Nothing! How to stop overmanaging and become a great leader, by J Keith Murnighan

Penguin Portfolio, £12.99

I nearly didn't bother to write this review, so convinced was I by its thesis. It is not just leaders who are guilty of obsessive overwork and meddling, we all are.

But in this delightful, well-written, whimsical yet authoritative book, the writer (who is a professor at the Kellogg School of Management) has a point. As a friend of mine says, the key to successful leadership is nose in, fingers out. Too often we see leaders with nose and fingers in, fiddling about in every nook and cranny of their organisation, and, worse, some who just interfere without apprehending even a whiff of what is really going on - nose out, fingers in. But nose out and fingers out may not be too smart.

Of course the title is designed to arrest you - we have seen organisations such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns suffer the ultimate fate of extinction due to the neglect of their leaders, respectively Dick Fuld and Jimmy Cayne. The latter was playing championship bridge in a tournament even as his house was tumbling down, while Fuld on the other hand was a real fingers-in man. He just paid attention to all the wrong stuff.

Murnighan is right of course - in either event, we need protecting from leaders who think their leadership is the ultimate asset of the firm. I recall a French bank executive who stunned his assembled top tier at a management seminar by telling them that 'leadership is a lousy way to run a company'. The point this book makes is that you need great teamwork, smart professionals and good systems, so the leader knows that the show doesn't rely solely on him or her.

The book has a number of clear lessons. Having convincingly made the case for less is more and the value of teamwork, the author moves to what I call 'decentring' - the art of seeing through the eyes of followers and others - which he calls 'Focus on Them'. Murnighan then proceeds to 'Start at the End', which is an extension of his very sensible Leadership Law: 'Think of the reaction that you want first, then determine the actions you can take to maximise the chances that those reactions will actually happen.' This is otherwise known as backward induction.

'Trust More' is the title of chapter four, which like many others draws on a wealth of experimental social psychology to reinforce the idea that trust is a virtuous circle. Chapter five is 'Release Control (Deviously)', which is the method of engaging people, hearing their voices, and generating productive exchanges. In one passage, he illustrates how cardiac surgery teams deal with non-standard inputs, and how confidence springs from this kind of distributed leadership.

The chapter 'Bear Down Warmly' is about love really - and respect. Love for what you do and the concerns of your people, and your ability to reach out to them as a facilitator and orchestrator rather than as the stand-up boss.

'Ignore Performance Goals' is again somewhat of an overstatement, for Murnighan demurs by saying, well of course these goals can be helpful, but what really matters are learning goals. At root this chapter is about self-improvement. It is about separating acts from the values that attach to them and being dispassionate enough to learn with the help of others from what you do, including from your mistakes.

The last of his seven key ideas is 'De-emphasise Profits', which is a hymn to our troubled times and quite palatable after we've seen how attention to the bottom line is fatal when it neglects the top line. He is surely right that it is value creation rather than profit maximisation that marks out the leadership we need today.

The book concludes with seven profiles of what he calls 'Unnatural Leaders'. The mix is interesting and includes unknown local leaders, high-profile personalities, such as Oprah Winfrey, business entrepreneurs and people from the arts. Each exemplifies many of the themes that have recurred throughout the book. Yet it's hard to see any strong thread running through them, other than they all deserve our positive regard.

Of course, that's the challenge of leadership. We - they - are all different. The trick is how to make your difference tell for the best. Do nothing may be a key part of that, but surely you also have to do something.

Nigel Nicholson is a professor at London Business School and is the author of the forthcoming The 'I' of Leadership (Jossey-Bass).

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