Conversations in Management: Ralph Waldo Emerson

The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.

                                                                                               Ralph Waldo Emerson

EmersonHe always wore black. He disapproved of loud laughter. He thought love was a topic too important to be discussed lightly. He was always a bit aloof—even his closest friends referred to him as Mr. Emerson. Yet there was something about Waldo (he dropped the “Ralph” while at Harvard) Emerson that simply engaged people. He inspired deep loyalty, respect and even fondness. A scrub woman who attended many of his lectures was asked by a reporter if she understood what he had said; “Not a word,” she answered, “but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone was as good as he.”

He enjoyed the 19th century equivalent of rock star status as a lecturer. His contributions as a poet, philosopher and writer helped to define what it was—and is—to be an American. Despite his stature, he had an easy, self-deprecating sense of humor. He was willing to try anything once and to admit when he was wrong. After an unhappy attempt to combine manual labor with his intellectual pursuits, he wrote simply, “writers shouldn’t dig.”

Evidently, Emerson’s world, like ours, was richly endowed with people who couldn’t laugh at themselves. That’s too bad. The ability to enjoy a good laugh at your own expense gives life balance. People who can’t do this tend to take themselves very seriously. And they expect you to take them very seriously as well. They’ll boast and posture and brag until they run out of breath in an effort to convince you of their immense worth. But there is a dark side too. These folks don’t take criticism well. They tend to be petty, prideful and more than a little arrogant. When they feel pressured, they often lash out at both friend and foe alike. In short, they aren’t a whole lot of fun to be around. They either bore you or berate you.

Such people provide leaders with a unique set of challenges. Assuming that the annoying behavior really isn’t a feint to cover petty larceny, you can be almost certain that this blustery behavior is covering fear, uncertainty or insecurity. Effective leaders will take the time to look beyond the defensiveness. You don’t have to become a junior psychologist, but you should know if your leadership style contributes to the problem or helps minimize it. After all, many braggarts are simply people so starved for positive feedback that they end up providing their own. Do you compliment your folks? Do you recognize success both large and small? Do you empathize with problems and coach for better results?  If you don’t, you’re making things harder on people who are already having a hard time—and you’d better start counting the spoons!      —Ebert

Leave a Reply