Quintessential Leaders don't cut cornersCutting corners is an English idiom that means “[to] undertake something in what appears to be the easiest, quickest, or cheapest way, especially by omitting to do something important or ignoring rules.”

Its origin comes from the phrase “to cut a corner,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to pass round a corner or corners as closely as possible; fig., to pursue an economical or easy but hazardous course of action; to act in an unorthodox manner to save time; also, to act illegally.”

Cutting corners increasingly seems to be a common practice among many people in leadership positions today.

There are several root causes of why people in leadership positions cut corners.

Minimizing costs and maximizing profits

This root cause includes both human and material resources. I’ve talked about the increasing trend toward just-in-time hiring of contract workers – cheap, but without knowledge or experience – on a project-by-project basis, instead of investing in knowledgeable, experienced, and valuable – already knowledgeable and experienced at the outset, but adding value by gaining more knowledge and experience over time – permanent employees.

At the same time as people in leadership positions are cutting corners on human resources to minimize costs and maximize profits, they are also cutting corners on material resources for the same reasons. In the global economy, cheap and often-poor-quality components are readily available and offer a very lucrative way to cut corners and make money.

In fact, many American manufacturers who claim that their products are “Made in the USA” are lying. While the products may be assembled in the United States, the majority of the components are imported, principally from China, and the quality of the components is poor to non-existent.

Poor project management

This root cause includes both poor project planning and poor project execution. Some of this has occurred because many people in leadership positions have cut corners with their permanent hiring practices by expecting project managers, who tend to be good at managing concrete and technical things but have little ability or experience in leading people, to lead projects from the beginning (planning) to the end (successful execution).

Although project managers are necessary in the planning of projects, they often think just in terms of data and milestones, unaware and, frankly, unconcerned, as project leaders are that the cornerstone of effective project planning involves human factors – hiring, training, coaching, and monitoring throughout the process.

Therefore, since the human resources component is to project managers often just simply data (how many and how much) and milestones (by when), the result is poor project planning and poor project execution.

Willingness to compromise excellence for good enough

This root cause of this cutting corners method has two sources. Sometimes a single source exists, while other times both sources come into play simultaneously.

More commonly than we might like to believe, many people in leadership positions knowingly and willingly choose to compromise excellence for good enough. It’s simply the way they work because they see short-term gains as being preferable to long-term goals.

Additionally, especially among manufacturers in general consumer-based markets (appliances, cars, electronics, etc.), good enough shortens the life cycle of consumption, so that these products must be (even for those of us who are immune to emotional marketing and advertising, which says “you have to have this NOW“) replaced more often.

The second source of compromise with excellence to good enough are with the process itself. Each of the parts of the process – people, materials, and time – are each deficient because of poor – or no – leadership and poor and/or unwise allocation.

People are not trained properly or are not used in areas that best suit their skills. In those cases where a person is just a poor fit, cutting them loose either doesn’t happen at all or happens too late to aim for anything better – and, at this point, even this becomes questionable – than a compromise with excellence to good enough.

Components are either substandard and/or insufficient. Compromise from excellent to good enough – if that – is inevitable when components don’t work the way they are supposed to and/or there are simply not enough on hand.

Time is wasted on the wrong things or too little time is invested. It’s become routine for speed to be a primary factor in business and organizational decision making. The assumption is that faster is better.

Therefore, delivery times get shorter and shorter, even on the most complicated and complex applications. This is where, in the most optimal estimates of time, time wasted on the wrong things leads to a compromise from excellence to good enough.

More commonly, though, the compromise from excellence to good enough comes from giving unrealistic timelines to do something well and right.

Lack of quality is a result of cutting cornersThe upshot of these root causes of cutting corners is the sacrifice of quality.

People in leadership positions who cut corners are simply more interested in the short-term (What’s in it for me right now?) than they are in the long-term (How is this going to affect our future relationships and our future goals?).

And the long-term cost of cutting corners is devastating.

Imagine getting a product with specific promises and guarantees associated with it in the time frame specified and believing that you got an incredibly good deal. On the surface, initially, everything looks to be as it was advertised and sold to you.

However, with time, you discover serious and critical flaws under the surface that totally negate the specific promises and guarantees you were assured of and that occurred because corners were cut every step of the way with the product.

Would you ever recommend that product or that provider to anyone else? Would you warn everyone you know to avoid that product and provider no matter what?

When you needed similar products and providers in the future, would you choose that product and provider again? Would you, in seeking alternate products and providers, explain to them (the original product’s and provider’s competitors) why you are choosing something and someone different?

The long-term ripple effects of cutting corners should be apparent. Not only can it destroy a business or organization, but it also can destroy the lives of the people employed there.

Even more devastating, however, can be the wider destruction that cutting corners can cause.

Consider the increasing number of fatalities linked to General Motors’ corner-cutting foot-dragging and refusal to replace $5 faulty ignition switches.

The Challenger space shuttle explosion was a result of cutting cornersConsider the corner-cutting decision not to delay yet one more time the launch of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 because of identified issues with efficacy of the shuttle’s o-rings in cold weather.

Consider the corner-cutting behind the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Nuclear plants are notorious for cutting corners in safety and emergency preparationsConsider the corner-cutting behind the deadly and widespread aftermaths of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

These are just a few examples of cutting corners. There are many more that happen on a daily basis that are either under-reported or unreported.

The temptation to cut corners can be alluring. But quintessential leaders know that every decision on every scale has consequences.

Whether we realize it or not, the first time we choose to cut corners, whether it is a personal or collective decision sets a path of tendency toward cutting corners in more and more areas of our lives, until we come to believe that it is okay and we’re not hurting anyone with a little nod here and a little wink there.

Nothing could be further from the truth, for ourselves and for the people that we are, at the least, defrauding, and, at the most, possibly destroying.

For those us who are striving to be quintessential leaders, we must be constantly examining our own motives, our own words, our own actions – who and what we are – to see if and where we have or are choosing to cut corners in every aspect of our lives.

It’s always easier to see these things in other people, but it is often hardest to see it in ourselves.

And, yet, because we are on the path to becoming quintessential leaders, our responsibility is to look at ourselves first to see whether we measure up to the quintessential leader standard – it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us on the planet, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, that we don’t measure up to that standard perfectly, but we are committed to and actively moving in that direction – and when we find areas like cutting corners that don’t meet that standard, we embark on eliminating and changing them immediately.

How are we doing?

  1. Watched the news and saw that many products that were said to be made in American – were not. You buy things today at much higher prices, only to find, you have wasted your money on an inferior product. They certainly do not make anything today like they did 50 years ago. Cutting Corners is the trend in the world today.


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