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News & Events

Do Nothing!

In his new book, Professor Keith Murnighan proposes a counterintuitive — but effective — approach to leadership

By Chris Serb ’09

6/14/2012 - Too often, newly promoted business leaders bury themselves in their work, make big and very visible changes, and flex their muscles to assert their authority.


Do Nothing!
“Have you ever seen a supervisor, a boss, or an authority figure trust someone more than they anticipated? … When I ask [my Executive MBA students] how they have responded to this experience, they all have exactly the same answer … they stepped up and exerted extra effort to show the person who had trusted them that they were worthy of their trust. Every single one.
This makes for a very clear message. If you want to be a more effective leader, if you want to get the same response that all of my executives’ bosses have, simply do what they did. Trust more. The result will be positive reciprocity, which will make your job easier and allow you to move much closer to actually doing nothing.”

—Excerpted from Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader (Portfolio Hardcover, June 2012)

In response to this understandable, biologically ingrained behavior, J. Keith Murnighan, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Distinguished Professor of Risk Management, has one piece of advice: Do nothing.

In his new book, Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader (Portfolio Hardcover, June 2012), Murnighan argues that leaders need to do more of what they’re supposed to be doing — namely, leading, facilitating and orchestrating — and less of the actual work that helped those same leaders stand out as they climbed the career ladder.

“As you move up, you can’t help but remember what made you successful and think that you should ‘do’ more of that,” Murnighan says. “But as you get more responsibility, you should actually do less.”

As simple as that sounds, many leaders actually do the opposite, by focusing on the “little stuff,” doing nitty-gritty work and micromanaging. That’s where problems arise.

“As you get higher in an organization’s hierarchy, you are expected to have a big-picture outlook, a wide-ranging view and a strategic orientation,” Murnighan says. “The more ‘little stuff’ that you do, the more you get in the way and the more dysfunctional the situation is for everyone else.”

Murnighan is quick to point out that the key message behind Do Nothing! isn’t that leaders should literally stop showing up at work. He notes that bosses need to be less egocentric and should instead focus on understanding their employees’ perspectives, choosing actions that will elicit the most desirable reactions from team members.

Murnighan also stresses the need to release control — not necessarily to a “one person, one vote” democracy, but to create an atmosphere where group members believe their voices will be heard, and where they feel psychologically safe enough to ask questions or raise issues which may lead to better strategy.

“Whether it’s a blue-collar worker running your machine shop or someone who sells bonds to banks, your employees are the kinds of people who want to be respected,” Murnighan says. “True professionals who care about their work want leaders to say, ‘You’re on the front lines and I’m not, so I want to hear your voice as I formulate our strategy.’”

Murnighan’s book has already earned accolades. Cable news network CNBC has named Do Nothing! as one of its “12 Most Anticipated Business Books of 2012.”