Why exceptional leaders focus on More Cowbell

My favorite scene of the Saturday Night Live show is ‘More Cowbell.’ In this sketch we see a live studio recording of a famous Blue Oyster Cult song, including a disruptive ‘cowbell’ player. Finally the studio director steps in. To the surprise of many, he demands … more cowbell!

There is a lesson here for all us who aspire to become exceptional leaders. Exceptional Leaders are not afraid of ‘More Cowbell.’ They relentlessly focus on building their strengths and refuse to let their strengths be overshadowed by somehow trying to compensate their weaknesses.

They know that if you would focus your entire life on compensating your weaknesses, the only thing you would end up with is a large set of strong weaknesses. This is not a recipe for High Performance.

This single minded focus on your own strengths and the strengths of an organization is called the More Cowbell Principle. Here are five practical ideas how exceptional leaders inspire More Cowbell in their organization.

1. They get rid of dysfunctional Performance Systems. Too many Performance Systems are aimed at identifying weaknesses to develop people. Focus on peoples’ strengths and on building High Performance Teams to compensate any individual weaknesses instead. When was the last time you used 360 degrees feedback to identify massive strengths, instead of the dreaded ‘development areas?’

2. They reinvent delegation. Real delegation means giving something which is work for you, to someone else for whom it is play. Everyone is wired differently and playing to our strengths is often enjoyable and fun. When delegation is applied well, you will be surrounded by people who love to do what you detest doing. You can read more on how to apply delegation here.

3. They continuously apply the principle of the Highest and Best Use of Time throughout their organization. Highest and Best Use Activities are activities which:

The organization is skilled at
The organization is passionate about
Create (massive) value to others

Then they outsource or eliminate everything else

4. They lead by example. They admit their many weaknesses and ask for help. No success has ever been achieved in isolation. Exceptional leaders see themselves as Trim Tabs: a Trim Tab is a little rudder, which moves a big rudder, which consequently moves a massive oil tanker. It is a metaphor for the ability of leaders to change an entire organization, by consistently applying desired behavior themselves. They know that if an organization improves by 1% every day, it only takes 70 days for the entire organization to become twice as good.

5. They nurture everyones superhero talent. We all have talents. But each of us has one talent where our skill is truly off the scale. We often do not recognize this talent ourselves: it comes so naturally to us that applying this talent is no longer a conscious effort. Exceptional leaders inspire others to become aware and accelerate their superhero talent. There are three ways to quickly find your own super-talent:

You use it to solve your most complex problems,
Others constantly come to you for help and advice in this area
You love to read/watch/listen about it and be engaged with it.
Therefore, an exceptional leader sees the organization as one big ‘Superhero convention,’ where people are stimulated to exchange their talents and start applying their strengths to the maximum extent possible.

If you do what everyone else is doing, you are not distinguishing yourself and you are probably stuck. Exceptional leaders know this. They insist on More Cowbell, for themselves and for others. Only by showing courage and building on strengths they are able to unleash the entire potential of an organization.

Exceptional leadership is about success, not perfection.

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