Skip to main content


| December 4, 2017

by Jim Bruce

… conjunction (joining two words, phrases, or clauses) as in   “Rachel plays the piano and sings.”  (

Eric McNulty, director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, notes that over the years words like “paradigm shift,” “synergy,” “sustainability,” “resilience,” “agile,” “lean,” as well as others have come onto the stage, and often inform new thinking and stimulate new practices.  Many of these words, however, also end up being overused and become buzzwords.
McNulty also notes that while the conjunction “and” is not likely to join the list, it does capture and communicate the essence of many of the leadership challenges we face today.  Many of these challenges simply cannot be successfully addressed by choosing either “A” or “B” or “B” not “A.”  They require a more nuanced thinking that examines both “A” and “B.”
We have talked about this in some cycles of the leaders program using a simple example modeled by the sentence:  I know you want “A” but I need “B.”  “A” could be your desire to work on an exciting new project as your next assignment and “B” could be your manager’s need for you to do maintenance work on a system you had previously designed and put into operation.  Or, “A” could be your proposal to move systems located across the campus in many data centers under control of multiple offices directly to the public cloud while “B” could be your manager’s proposal to first centralize them in a single data center. 
In all these cases, the “but” can deny the request and may shut down any real discussion of options or larger issues.  Robert Deutsch, cognitive anthropologist, argues that we are no longer living in simple times where simple either-or thinking along with “imperial” decision making makes sense in many of the situations we encounter.  He believes that almost everything comes down to inherent contradictions and ambiguities and to the “age of and.”
McNulty put it this way:  “…leaders are expected to be both mythic – having answers that elude average people – and simultaneously approachable.  In the past, this was often an either/or decision.  Additionally, contemporary leaders are expected to craft a singular, compelling vision while also being inclusive and welcoming contributions to define the way forward.”  Deutsch would say that we must embrace “crosscutting paradoxes” to succeed. 
The “and” lesson for leaders today is that you must embrace the paradox and move beyond simple authority.  To be successful you must build your leadership platform to facilitate independent, yet aligned participation and connection by others in your relationship network.  As you confidently include others into the discussion, better solutions will emerge.  “And” is more powerful than either “but” or “or.”  As you substitute “and” for “but” and “or” opportunities for collaboration and unexpected solutions will emerge. 
Taking this further, a panel at a June 2015 Points of Light Conference in Houston, discussed the importance of the word “and” and how to bring credibility and sustainability to an organization’s purpose as well as to connect strategies, concepts, and people.  The conference presentations suggested a number of approaches we may want to consider adapting to the more urgent world we live in:

  • balance patience for change and the urgency to act.
  • test, learn, and act all at the same time.
  • go with a not-fully-baked idea and continue to listen and make changes along the way.
  • execute the tried-and-true approaches and push for new ones.
  • establish control through project selection and goal setting and leave room for ambiguity.
  • develop initiatives with feedback from the top down and the bottom up.
  • measure success with qualitative individual stories and quantitative metrics.

All of these ideas – McNulty’s, Deutsch’s, as well as those from the Points of Life Conference – urge us to both not narrow our options too rapidly and to think and act more creatively and carefully as we take action to move forward.
So, this week, consider replacing the “but’s” and “or’s” in your thinking with “and’s” as often as possible. 
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Eric McNulty, The Power of And, Strategy + Business Blogs, March 2017.
Robert Deutsch, The Five Essentials:  Using Your Inborn Resources to Create a Fulfilling Live, Avery, 2003.
Carol Cone, The Power of “And”:  10 Guidelines for Powerful Purpose Strategy and Programming, Sustainable Brands, June 2017.