Leadership Needs a Numbers Breakthrough

Ah, it is a brand new month! And not just any month: It is the 9th month, September.

“My favourite poem is the one that starts ‘Thirty days hath September’ because it actually tells you something.”
—Groucho Marx

There has always been something grand and liberating for me about September. I have long thought about it in a way which is polar opposite to Groucho Marx’s sentiment. For me September is surprisingly fresh and likely to be unpredictable, but a good unpredictable because it promises so much abundance.

Sunflowers by Rosa Say on Flickr
Sunflowers by Rosa Say on Flickr

September brings us the shift to autumn, and the season of the harvest: In business it marks a season of decisions. We seem to pattern ourselves after Mother Nature, innately understanding this as the time to harvest lessons-learned from our growing season in the earlier progression of the year, and we start to work on best closure as the weeks advance to December. It is our ‘best closure’ because it will sow the seeds for our next growing season in the year to come after winter has given us quiet, rest, and holiday. We might hibernate, but we will not actually close up completely.

September is our 9th month, and the number 9 has special relevance to me. I have a story promised to Joyful Jubilant Learning set to publish about it tomorrow: For now I will just say that if not for a breakthrough I had with the number 9 I would have screwed up a whole host of financial computations in business and in life”“ or not even have attempted them to begin with.

Leading By the Numbers

I think that leadership needs a numbers breakthrough too.

We have long given each other such awful, negative connotations to numbers in business. On the one hand, numbers are revered as supreme; they are the measurement metrics of our universal business language. They are pragmatic. (Hear the sighs of all your CFOs and CPAs?)

However let it be known (or surmised) that you are at all “bottom-line driven” and you strike fear in the hearts of all your employees and their families. Your suppliers and vendor partners get nervous, pulling out their invoices to check on the terms they gave you, and they watch which competitors you talk to at cocktail parties (oh, sorry… those got cut from the budget?). Even your Board of Directors may become suspicious, worrying that you deliver but cut too many corners, and might be eroding the longer term prospects of your financial health. For after all, ROI can be short term or long term too.

A triple bottom line? Sounds brutal! Isn’t one enough?

We often feel there is simply no winning with numbers: We’re damned if we get them (and spend them) and damned if we don’t.

Shifting Context Can Help

This might help.

I was blessed with a teacher who taught me something profound when I was still in middle school, about to tackle that dreaded subject which would induce adolescent puberty if your hormones hadn’t already done so for you: Algebra. I don’t remember his words exactly, but the gist of what he said was this:

Math and numbers are two different things which happen to work together well. However we can use numbers for more than just math.

It sounds incredibly obvious, but back then this was like a pronouncement of permission thinking sent straight from heaven. He then went on to say,

Put aside math for now; don’t even think about it. Let’s figure out how you can learn to like numbers.

It was permission to reinvent numerology all over again, doing it any way you wanted to.

Back then I didn’t have a computer, and was not allowed to use a calculator in class. I didn’t know Excel and how to format all the cool macros. These things are commonplace no-brainers in business today, and ‘Algebra’ is not our dreaded word; neither is ‘math.’

Our dreaded word is ‘financials.’

In our breakthrough, we need to tell ourselves this:

Metrics and numbers are two different things which happen to work together well. However we can use numbers for more than just the financials.

No matter what your financials might look like right now, good or bad, my September challenge to you is to see the abundance, and allow numbers to help you see it no matter where you look.

What new association can you make, giving those who depend on your leadership some kind of breakthrough?

Little Known by Victorrjr on Flickr
Little Known by Victorrjr on Flickr who shares: “Very few people know that the famous equation E=mc ² is a shorthand for a longer equation that takes relativity into account.” Click on photo to learn more.

Financial Literacy Can Rock

I happen to believe that financial literacy is an outstanding goal for all managers to have, for themselves, for their staff, and for all stakeholders connected with a business. However during September I am going to put that aside, and not get up on my financial literacy soapbox (I promise.)

What I do think we will talk about though, in celebrating the abundance of September together, are numbers.

Let’s try it. You just might like it… This month we will also have a palindromic event: 09-09-09!

“The last of the single digits for quite a while. 1001 years to be precise. It seems like a good day to celebrate and look forward to.”
How to Get Ready for 09-09-09

Meanwhile, here’s a trip down memory lane to revisit some ways that we’ve already seen how numbering can shift our perspective in those “surprisingly fresh” moods that September promises more of. Here are 7 links (I end with 9 for Talking Story): You knew that September gets its name from the number 7, right?

Let’s talk story.
Any thoughts to share?

For those who prefer them, here are the Talking Story copies of the links embedded in this posting:

  1. A Triple Bottom Line for Hawai‘i
  2. Seven Ways to Assess Your Personal Brand Assets Beyond A Job
  3. The 2 C’s of Technology and Early Adoption
  4. 3 Ways Managers Create Energetic Workplaces
  5. Two Gifts: Values and Conversation (About the Daily 5 Minutes)
  6. The 30-70 Rule in Leading and Managing
  7. Learn a 5-Step Weekly Review, and Make it your Habit
  8. 5 Twitter Tips for Leading, and 5 Twitter Tips for Managing

Article originally published on Say “Alaka‘i” September 2009
Leadership Needs a Numbers Breakthrough


  1. Rosa Say says

    Update: Came across a relevant-to-this-topic article written for Fast Company by the Heath Brothers of Made to Stick fame:
    The Gripping Statistic: How to Make Your Data Matter

    “Putting a number in a day-to-day context is critical… Building intuition about numbers is different from shocking people with numbers… A good statistic is one that aids a decision or shapes an opinion. For a stat to do either of those, it must be dragged within the everyday. That’s your job — to do the dragging.”