Are These Sacred Cows Holding You Back?

Jan 9, 2013
5 Min Read

I have to admit, when my colleague Jake Breeden told me the title of his new book, I had to look up what it meant.  But once I did, it made perfect sense.  Jake’s book, Tipping Sacred Cows, is about the hidden beliefs that keep us from achieving our true potential.  While they are mostly virtuous, they can also be dangerous because they are rarely questioned.  Some of them really resonated with me, and I bet they will with you as well:


This value is often misconstrued to mean constant compromise, but bold leaders must make tough choices. And when we as leaders move from doing one thing well to many things poorly, our organizations suffer. Leaders who hide behind balance as an excuse to avoid taking a stand for an unpopular position do themselves and their companies a disservice. In short, when balance encourages us to say yes to everything all at once, we end up saying no to leadership.


Too often collaboration is automatic, meaning that we work on something together by default instead of making the purposeful, conscious choice to do so.  The default state of working should be working alone; leaders should collaborate only when they must.  Depending on your role, that may mean a significant part of your job requires collaboration.  But ask yourself the question: does this work really need more than me?


This value can backfire because of a leader’s need to add her own ideas.  Adopting someone else’s best practice doesn’t give you the same sense of pride and accomplishment as generating a new best practice.  Creating a needless innovation feels better to the innovator than does creating nothing at all. In such cases, creativity has stopped being a tool used in service of larger goals, and has become the very personal source of a leader’s narcissistic needs.


High standards can choke progress.  This typically happens when we are focused on excellence in the process rather than excellence in the outcome. When our excellence muscle is exercised to ensure that every step of a process is flawless, we may worry too much; we may not take enough steps, or the right ones; and we may lose sight of the bigger picture.  We set a trap for ourselves when we expect excellence in everything, when excellence becomes a standard that’s ongoing and omnipresent. Regardless of how great a leader’s accomplishments are, there is always another ladder to climb.


In the world of work, this strong tug toward fairness can lead to some nasty unintended consequences.  Sometimes leaders avoid making exceptions for even exceptional performance, afraid of being accused of unfairness.  Fairness also backfires when leaders keep score, counting exactly what someone else was given.  They burn precious emotional and intellectual energy in the unproductive game of making sure everyone gets his or her fair share.  Most troubling is the research that shows that people who feel they have been unfairly treated are more likely to bend the rules.

What do you think about these golden values being turned on their heads?  What are some other “sacred cows” you’ve run into in your working life?

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