Sitting in a conference room waiting for a general officer briefing to begin, the briefer leaned in close to me and asked, “Any advice?” “Yeah,” I responded. “He’s a low talker, so when he starts to give you feedback, you have to be listening closely or you’ll miss something.”
Without so much as a thought, I’d invoked a classic pop culture reference from probably my favorite sit-com, Seinfeld. The term “low talker” originated in the “Puffy Shirt” episode and specifically refers to someone who murmurs when they speak. With this particular general, we were never quite certain if the low talk was just a habit or a means to force people to listen to him more carefully. Either way, those who didn’t listen very carefully tended to miss important details. And, if you ever watched the “Puffy Shirt” episode, then you know what that can lead to.
Seinfeld has permeated our culture since its debut in 1989. The characters, the antics, and, of course, the one-liners have all become enshrined in our memories. Everyone knows a Cosmo Kramer. We’ve all experienced that certain someone who wouldn’t hesitate to pass themselves off as a marine biologist. And who hasn’t complained about “close talkers” who invade your personal space? But how does any of this apply to leadership?
The Language of Leaders According to Seinfeld
Like much of pop culture, the language of Seinfeld took on another dimension in leadership circles. But this went beyond the casual office banter and took a firm hold. In much the same way as Star Wars quotes are the norm on most planning teams, the language of Seinfeld found a niche among certain leaders. Well, at least those who don’t take themselves too seriously and aren’t afraid to introduce a little levity to the workplace. And if Seinfeld gave us anything, it was an opportunity to lighten things up a bit and laugh at ourselves.
1. “No soup for you!”
A big part of leadership is having to tell people no. “Can we skip the division run?” “Do you think it would be okay if I didn’t attend mandatory training?” “Can we use your office for urinalysis?” You could just say “no” all the time, but channeling Yev Kassem is so much more satisfying. Well, for you, anyway.
2. “Yada, yada, yada…”
There are low talkers, close talkers, and long talkers. Long talkers are those people who never seem to come to a point. As a leader, helping people find that point is part of the job. There are times when interrupting someone with “yada, yada, yada” is a lot better than swearing at them. Maybe not as satisfying, though.
3. “Serenity now!”
Frankly, I’m not much for affirmations. About the closest I ever get is citing Stuart Smalley. There are days when the pace of work, demands from higher headquarters, or Murphy’s Law just weigh you down. In which case, there is no better affirmation than “Serenity Now!” And everyone else knows exactly where you’re coming from.
4. “When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy.”
In all fairness, most leaders have brief moments during the day to sit and reflect. But we also have those people, who see such moments as opportunities to occupy your time with nonsense. For my part, I did my best to be patient and try to keep those interruptions short. But George Costanza was right in this case. If you really want to keep people from bothering you, try to look annoyed.
5. “Just remember, when you control the mail, you control… information.”
If you lead a team that includes Information Operations or Public Affairs personnel, then you’re required to use this quote at least once a week. It applies in other contexts as well, but nothing will ever surpass dropping that quote in a strategic communications meeting.
6. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
If you lead formations long enough, you see a lot of weird stuff. The guy who drank chemlite fluid to see if his urine changed color (it didn’t). The company commander who buried a quarter-million dollars’ worth of excess tools (they weren’t). The battalion commander who insisted he had possums getting mud on the walls of his portable latrines in Iraq (he didn’t). At a certain point, there’s only one suitable response to those sorts of things.
7. “You know, the fact that you oppose this makes me think I’m onto something.”
Everyone has worked with a George Costanza at some point – someone who has perpetually bad instincts. These people actually make good sounding boards—if they don’t like your idea, then you know it’s good.
8. “Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
This is something I have always taken to heart when dealing with people. Sometimes, they’re not lying. They really believe what they’re telling you, no matter how stupid it sounds.
9. “I’m much more comfortable criticizing people behind their backs.”
As a leader, providing honest and direct feedback is something that should be expected of you. So, if you someone who prefers to trash talk others behind their backs, you’re probably not much of a leader. There were times in my career where people complained that I was blunt. Maybe, but at least they didn’t have to worry about me talking behind their backs.
10. “A Festivus for the rest of us.”
There comes a time when you just have to vent. At Festivus, this is called the “airing of grievances,” when you tell those close to you how they’ve disappointed you in the past year. The release is cathartic. Then you can move on to feats of strength.
A Show About Nothing and Everything
To be honest, the wisdom of Seinfeld has no bounds. The longer you spend thinking about it, the more examples come to mind. It may have been a “show about nothing,” but it’s found a home in my leadership language. As leaders, “we don’t just sell the steak, we sell the sizzle.”