Skip to main content
managing books

The Primes

By Chris McGoff

(John Wiley, 241 pages)

One time when consultant Chris McGoff was lamenting the struggle he faced gaining consensus for some changes at the World Bank, his colleague Michael Doyle picked up a napkin and drew a working definition of consensus that illustrated the group's lack of agreement.

The drawing suggested that in seeking consensus, the aim is not to get everyone to agree but to get everyone to subscribe to the following three points:

  • The process was explicit, rational, and fair;
  • I was treated well and my inputs were heard;
  • I can live with and commit to the outcomes.

The traditional notion of consensus – that everyone must agree with everything – was also shown on the napkin, but was drawn in a red circle with a slash mark through it, to indicate it should be banished.

That quick piece of advice is one of 46 guidelines for working in groups that Mr. McGoff and the late Mr. Doyle developed as they struggled with their consulting assignments. The duo called the guidelines "primes," and viewed these insights as "blinding shocks of the obvious."

"Like genes are to individuals, primes are to groups. Whether you understand them or not, they determine a group's performance. Master the primes and you can master leading groups," Mr. McGoff writes in his book cataloguing them, The Primes.

The notion of integrity, for example, has many definitions. But the Integrity Prime is simple: "Say means do." If you say you will do something, you do it. Every time. That is the everyday measure of integrity by which you are evaluated. You must recognize this every time you are about to give your word, or when you promise to do something.

And you should say yes only when you mean it. Get used to saying "no," Mr. McGoff advises, because that should be your most common response to requests.

In similar vein, the Declaration Prime says that a declaration is a statement of what you will achieve by a certain date. He cites President John F. Kennedy's declaration that an American would go to the moon and back by the end of the 1960s, and Babe Ruth's declaration that he would hit the next pitch over the wall.

"These leaders pointed and then hit," Mr. McGoff notes. "Athletes today swing away. When they happen to hit one over the fences, they stand and point. That is not declarative leadership. The order matters."

Leaders love to proclaim their visions. But the Dynamic Incompleteness Prime suggests that while you must come up with a vision for your organization that is compelling for what it signals, you must also make sure it is inviting in what you leave out. Indicate what's missing, and what your team has to complete. This encourages them to contribute to the framework.

The Request Prime highlights the importance of being able to distinguish between a statement, a request, and a command. In the hurly-burly of work, we often fail to notice, and complications can ensue.

  • A statement is a description of something or the condition of someone. No response is necessarily required.
  • A request is an invitation to give your word on something. It requires a response, yes or no. “Maybe,” or “I’ll try” means no, and their use should be forbidden. Say the actual word: No.
  • A command requires someone to make good on his or her word. “Commands are an essential part of high-performance social contracting, and the only response to them is ‘Yes,’” he stresses.

The Big Hat/Little Hat Prime reminds us of an important dilemma we can face. When we put on our big hat, we are expected to think like the CEO, making decisions for the good of the company.

But inevitably we also put on our little hat, focusing on how corporate actions affect our team. "People who wear these two hats will never see the same issue in the same way. And until you name both viewpoints, the conflict between them will be pervasive – yet relatively invisible," he warns.

The 46 primes are idiosyncratic, and reading them doesn't add up to a leadership manual. But they are certainly instructive reminders of ways we can stumble when leading. And they are presented in a charming, easy-to-read fashion, with helpful illustrations.



Losing It: Behaviors and Mindsets that Ruin Careers (Financial Times, 163 pages, $28.99), by Bill Lane is framed as a business book, broken into chapters on the specific ways you can mess up your career, but it's more like being trapped in a bar with a boorish, albeit enchanting, storyteller. You likely won't remember the specific chapter topics, let alone the lessons he promotes, but you will remember many of the stories of the winners and losers he met in his career, including Jack Welch, the ex-GE chief executive officer he served as speechwriter, and many other top execs in that company.