Managing the Uncountable

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For a time, early in my career, it seemed like what I was best at was getting fired. I got fired a couple of times before I realized that I was the problem. I was internalizing that when I got fired again.

This time, I’d been on the job for around four years. The organization was a hot mess when I showed up. I dug in, though, and every single metric had improved. They fired me anyway.

By this time, I knew that I needed to look at what I was doing to figure out how to do better next time. My mother helped a lot. And my mentor, Hank, spent a lot of time coaching me. I remember the session where the scales fell from my eyes. Hank started the session by quoting Einstein.

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Hank let me absorb the quote. Then, he asked, “You’ve got all the metrics right. So, what happened?”

We talked about the things I’d done that messed up on the human relations side. I won’t go into detail, because it’s not important here, but Hank used the word “arrogant” and the phrase “Bull in a China shop” more than once. Then, Hank asked another question.

“If you can’t count it, what can you do?”

That got me thinking. More than thirty years later, I’m still thinking.

Why We Love Numbers

The big reason we love the numbers is that they make things easy. Reduce things to a number or two and you don’t have to mess with any of that human stuff. That makes it easy and we almost always will choose the easy way over the hard but right way.

Numbers make us feel like we’re in control. Putting a number on something makes it seem like we understand it. We can control numbers. We can add them and subtract them. We can make them come out the way we want. We even think things are more accurate if we carry the numbers out to several decimal places.

Leadership is About Judgement

If it was all about numbers, all we’d need was a couple of leaders to load the right things into the computer and punch the calculate key. But that won’t work. You can’t reduce the human parts of business to numbers.

The best leaders get that. They understand that their job isn’t about manipulating numbers, it’s about sharing a vision of a better future and the way to get there. Numbers can help you assess things, but they’re not enough.

Numbers Alone are Dangerous Masters

When numbers are all that matter, things like ethics and morale are devalued. That’s what happened to Wells Fargo.

The goal was all about numbers and nothing else. When that happens, we shouldn’t be surprised when people “make their numbers” and sacrifice everything else. Numbers can’t measure or drive ethics. You can’t carry out passion to several decimal places.

If you want to be a good leader, numbers can help you. But if you want to be a great leader, numbers aren’t enough.

What You Can Do When You Can’t Count

Have conversations. You will learn more from the conversations with the people you lead than you will from any numerical report. Lots of conversations are better than fewer. Conversations where you listen more than you talk are best.

Habitually assess progress. Ask the question, “Did we make progress?” often. Ask it every day. Ask it about every project.

Question your numerical goals. Ask yourself what people might do to make the numerical goal that would be dangerous or hurtful in other ways. If you base incentives on numbers, figure out how they can be gamed. Every incentive system can be gamed.

Constantly ask the most important question: “How can we get the numbers right and still be wrong?”

Bottom Line

You’re a leader. You’re responsible for both productivity (numbers) and morale. You’re the one primarily responsible for the culture. You set and enforce ethical standards. So, have conversations and ask questions. Pay attention to your gut when it tells you something “doesn’t feel right.”


The thoughts in this post have been banging around in my head for more than thirty years. I was inspired to marshal them into a post after reading Henry Mintzberg’s book, Bedtime Stories for Managers, especially the essay, “The Tricky Task of Measuring Managing.” You can read my review here.

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