Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(ANTHONY BOLANTE/ANTHONY BOLANTE)
(ANTHONY BOLANTE/ANTHONY BOLANTE)

lucy kellaway

Why boring is best when it comes to leading a business Add to ...

A few days ago Jeff Immelt sent out a message to all 300,000 General Electric employees offering some tips for their summer reading. “I read between 50 and 70 books a year … split between history, novels and business,” the GE chief wrote. He went on to discuss a couple of titles before ending with a request: “Let me know what you are reading so that I can get smarter.”

More related to this story

The only explanation for this odd outpouring from the most important man in mainstream U.S. corporate life is that he is trying to signal to his work force that he’s not boring.

Alas, the text of the message rather proves the reverse. If there is one thing that unites interesting people it is that they don’t keep a tally of the number of books they’ve read in order to brag about it.

Mr. Immelt’s attempt to look interesting is not just clumsy, it is also wrong. If you are the head of GE, you don’t need to seem interesting. Things may go rather smoother if you’re not.

Not long ago a study by Stephen Kaplan from the Chicago Booth School of Business showed good chief executive officers tend to be dull. They are dogged, efficient, good at detail and happy to work round the clock. Last week, the same point was made by the writer Joel Stein in a blog for the Harvard Business Review (HBR), in which he argued that boringness was the secret to great leadership.

Despite the fact that Prof. Kaplan and Mr. Stein are evidently on to something rather big, many HBR readers responded to the latter’s article with hostility: They simply couldn’t accept the idea that good leaders are bores.

The sticking point, I think, is that they think boring means bad and have failed to see that boring can just as easily be good. Indeed, what bores need is a drastic image makeover to show them as valuable, admirable workers and citizens and as the mainstay of the global economy. Boring people are not only more successful than interesting ones, they may be happier (because they are simpler) and nicer (because they get into less trouble).

Bores do better in almost all occupations – in business, in banking, banking, consultancy, the law, accountancy, medicine. Indeed, such is the advantage that the boring have over the interesting that even in areas where there is a rapacious demand for personality – such as in politics – the boring still tend to rise to the top. It is why none of us can get enough of London Mayor Boris Johnson: he is the only man in public life who doesn’t bore us.

I should probably define what I mean by boring – and what I don’t. Boring does not mean stupid. You can be boring and brilliant. What boring does mean is narrow. Boring people are very interested in one or two things and not remotely interested in anything else.

They also pay great attention to detail. They are predictable – a useful and most underrated trait. And bores are relatively happy to do boring things, which is also a godsend, given that most of working life involves doing tiresome, tiny things over and over again.

If anyone needs any evidence of the shocking mess we get into when we put interesting people in charge, look at publishing. That industry has always been astoundingly inefficient and is now on its knees. Why? Because the people who work in publishing aren’t nearly boring enough. They like books and ideas and are absolutely hopeless at running anything at all.

In order to help this rebranding process what is needed is a few Great Bore role models. Fortunately, I can think of two good examples straight off – John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates – who prove you can be a bore and still change the world. Rockefeller by all accounts had a well-developed boring side: He was a devout Baptist and staunch family man who, in his 80s, wrote a sweetly unsophisticated bit of doggerel about his life, ending with the line “And God was good to me every day.” Even Mr. Gates, despite being quite fascinating and fearsomely well read on the subjects of development and computers, is otherwise said to be a crashing bore who has no small talk and a stunted sense of humour.

So what can people do who have had the severe misfortune to have been born interesting? They can try publishing, of course, if there are any jobs left. Or they can teach, or write, or direct films, or become poets and philosophers. Better still, they can marry a successful bore to bankroll their unremunerative activities, or if all else fails, they can curl up in a corner and read far too many books ever to count.

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Careers

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories