The Everyman

Bill Paxton died last weekend

I fell in love with his acting rather late. His early work was notable but he could not replace my love for other actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Billy Bob Thornton or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Actors whose artistry was easy to access and no less beautiful for it.

I fell in love with Bill through the HBO series Big Love. He was an everyman with an unusual secret, as all everymen have, and he played the unfolding of his character’s ordinary uniqueness with a gentle and uncomfortable subtlety that made me appreciate how extraordinary the average man is. Paxton was a revelation. As it is for far too many average, revelatory people, in a moment he was gone.

We often overlook the everyman (or everywoman) in a mad rush to find the Leader. I do this myself, oftentimes being far more interested in leaders or up-and-coming leaders or failed leaders than I am about the people who tirelessly devote themselves to getting things done. Companies are full of Leader Love, from internal adulation to leadership development programs to hiring regimens. Finding the next great leader is an almost singular focus for most organizations, even to the point of penalizing “average” performance during annual performance season. Ultimately, this obsession with leaders sends a very clear, precise message to all who are not: either become one or languish until you leave (through your own decision or someone else’s).

How incredibly short-sighted. Not everyone wants to, or can, move into the leadership ranks, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, an over emphasis on leaders and leadership can create the bureaucratic sludge of overabundant committees and out of control processes that prevents, not supports, the achievement of results. Back in 1990, Richard Rosecrance, then professor of political science at UCLA, published a piece in New York Times entitled “Too Many Bosses, Too Few Workers.” He quoted statistics concerning the concentration of management vs. worker roles, citing Corporate America, public education and the military, all pointing to skewed ratios that highlighted anemic productivity.

The decade that followed saw productivity gains fueled by technology and corporate restructuring. Yet the aspirational love affair with leadership grew more pitched, leaving the traditional worker – the everyman – sidelined. Organizations started peppering their messages with “everyone is a leader” prose while carefully pushing employees who had reached their productive niche to gain leadership-style skills, regardless of their desire to do so. While stagnation is unhealthy for people and organizations, its opposite of continual growth into new territory does not guarantee benefits for all. Pushing valued workers ever outward and upward can make them feel intrinsically misunderstood as opposed to supported.

It’s as if the value of one who delivers consistent, masterful execution of his/her work, day in and day out, is undervalued. What happens when you continually undervalue the contributions of the everyman? Look at the 2016 US Presidential election experience for your answer. Companies do not live by leaders alone. They live, and succeed, because they balance the strategic and the tactical, the big picture and the practical. They succeed because they know those who deliver at every level are more than vital, they are an organization’s life blood.

So as I celebrate the consistent mastery of Bill Paxton’s “common” art, I simultaneously implore organizations to celebrate the people within who excel at getting things done, devote themselves to their teams and reveal in the niche expertise they ply. I suggest these institutions recognize not everyone wants to be a leader, and in that desire these employees lead the quest to do what is needed above all…good work.

 

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