Stepford Managers versus Step Forward Leaders

In 1971, Ira Levin penned The Stepford Wives. Little did he know that his tale of Connecticut housewives who performed their daily and nightly tasks methodically, flawlessly, and endlessly would become a label for the perfectionist homemaker. Nor could he have predicted that America would adopt the moniker “Stepford People” to describe those of us who act like robots. A hybrid between women and Six Sigma, these females-turned-machines operated to solely serve their men. Today, their business counterparts, Stepford Managers, serve their companies.

Like those flower-print-dressed-nymph-cook-wife-servants, Stepford Managers are busy cooking up consistent, systematic programs, policies, and performance scales that serve the company. But operational efficiency is not a destination for any great organization. In fact, too much process cuts off creativity, the lifeblood of business, which we all desire to protect. Rightly so, as more than 50 percent of all wealth creation in the United States and Great Britain is tied directly to innovation. Today, the profits go to the prophets, not the Stepford Managers.

What to do with a Stepford Manager? Recognize the three signs, then reprogram.

1. Stepford Managers are not flexible

They love the tried and true. The animated are often intimidated and labeled as silly. Fearlessness is all too often chalked up as being troublemaking. Managers, by definition, are Stepford-like. Even the root of the word management comes from the Latin term “manus,” which means, “To put a horse through its paces.” Managers, then, are here merely to make us perform. That’s not enough.

Routinization destroys innovation. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Trouble is, the groove becomes a rut and eventually the grave. How many of you have your jobs memorized? Rote learning is the very reason that thinking is not a core competency in American business.

Creativity is intelligence having fun. It is the act of discovery and learning something new. When daily schedules run us, the opportunity of daily revelation runs out. Stepford Managers like neat packages, but innovation does not come gift-wrapped. Instead, it demands bravery to break the bounds of convention.

Creativity is the destination, but courage is the journey. Edwin Land depicts this bravery. After taking his 6-year-old granddaughter to the zoo and snapping a photo of a giraffe, she asked to see the picture right away. Grandpa said that it could not be done. Little Land asked “Why Not?”

Spurred by the young girl’s challenge, Land went on to develop instant pictures and Polaroid. Inventors, such as Thomas Edison, were dauntless in their pursuit of the unthinkable. Edison referred to his 1,500 experiments to invent the light bulb as “steps” rather than failures. Steve Jobs, in David and Goliath fashion, took on a giant when the Apple CEO challenged IBM to “Think Different.”

 How to Reprogram: Now, more than ever before, what we need as businesses, as individuals, as a society, is one thing: Ideas. New, vital, raw, hot, brassy, challenging, paradigm-shattering ideas. The ability to create better ideas than the competition is the only sustainable competitive advantage a company can have and the only way that a company will have a future.

2. Stepford Managers don’t lead

Leadership creates a different relationship with its partners than Stepford Management does. It coddles the thinker, courts the iconoclast and loves the intuitive, which in turn creates a hot bed of innovation within its company. Mangers systemize and concretize; leaders decentralize and idealize. Managers evaluate. Leaders ideate. Managers love the idea of currency. Leaders know that today’s currency is ideas.

 How to Reprogram: None of us are born Stepford Managers. We become them by trying to cope in a world governed by logic, reason and fear. What a shame that we de-genius ourselves in our attempt to fit in. Einstein was fond of saying:

 If the idea isn’t absurd at first, there is probably no hope for it.

Put that quote above your desk: It’s your only hope for not falling prey to someone else’s dream rather than living out your own.

3. Stepford Managers don’t think for a living

Instead, they follow programs, protocols and processes. Intuitiveness, courage, innocence and inventiveness do not compute for them. If you work for one of these automotons it’s time to pull the plug. If you are one of them, it’s time to be reprogrammed.

 How to Reprogram: Take a baby step. Try driving to work a different way. Buy a colored shirt instead of the white one. Or, take a giant step! Do something at work you’ve never done before. Do what heroes do. Do the thing you fear the most. Stepford or Step forward!

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A version of this article originally appeared on Gandhi’s Be Magazine.


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