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Pinball Leadership

July 19, 2011

“That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball” – The Who

You are standing there playing pinball. And, man alive! You are humming. The ball is hitting all the areas of the table you want and need. The bells are continually ringing and the score is zooming upward. You think that there’s nothing else you can do to be better here. You are beating this game. You are in the zone and as productive as the table will allow you to be. 

In work, email feels like this sometimes, too. As soon as that email hits the inbox, you take care of it. There’s a satisfaction that comes from then deleting it. And, contrary to pinball, the score is not rising – it’s going down since that inbox message count is shrinking. Same feelings though – control, maybe satisfaction. I just wish it was really more than it is – simply managing another communication tool that technology throws at us. I wish it resulted in the kind of productivity I want from myself and my team. I wish it would add long-term value to the organization. But, it’s not innovation. It’s not leadership. It’s just good old-fashioned management in the digital age. Necessary, but not strategic. Valuable, but not value-add.

Why am I on this track? Because I’ve been thinking about what sustainability professionals do everyday, more and more. We answer stakeholder questionnaires. We complete surveys for external organizations. We spend countless hours evaluating external standards for data metric capture, working to find a way to credibly track those metrics because they are important to others – often not considering if the information is material to us. Sure, data is important, data is critical. Transparency is an essential element in an organization’s sustainability program. Measurement tells us where we are, and how we are performing. And, it can sure feel good when you get recognized for providing it – a lot of it. You make this “best-in-class” company list. You get highlighted on that corporate citizenship ranking. You are a pinball wizard (with my head nod to Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey). But, I can’t help thinking that it’s something like dealing with email. It serves a purpose. It is action. But, it doesn’t tell us what we should be doing, or where we should be moving. It’s generally not strategic. Clearly, it’s valued, but is it value-add? 

That’s why I think sustainability should be much like other forms of strategic initiatives. It should provide a lens for long-term thinking that just doesn’t take satisfaction in the short-term, easy wins that feel good. It should provide help in planning for the potentially hard days ahead. It should help change what’s possible. Sustainability, or any strategic function, should not just answer the question, What have you done for us today? It should also work to answer the question, What are you doing for us for tomorrow? That’s a much harder question to answer, but an important one.

So, why the term Pinball Leadership? It’s an ironic reminder that while these efforts are required, they are not, in fact, leadership. They are part of our management duties. We deal with the issues that we must deal with day-to-day, bouncing off the obstructions on the table as they appear, and using the bumpers to keep the ball in play. But, bouncing around, changing directions from external factors is reacting, not leading. Leading involves setting the course and sticking to it in bad times, as well as good, even if recognition doesn’t come – while others are satisfied with easy gestures, rather than strategic moves, and rewards are given to those that say the right thing, rather than do the right thing. As for pinball leadership? That’s just oxymoronic.


    Michael Radcliffe says:

    I could not agree more with this post. For some time now I have been advocating “strategic performance management” to align sustainability with business value – using the Balanced Scorecard as one approach to reaching this alignment.

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