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Don’t let your means betray your ends

Even the best of intentions in business can be undermined if your means betray your desired outcomes, writes Steve McKee.

5 min read


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Chicken Little and The Boy Who Cried Wolf are charter tales in our cultural lexicon. These and other stories teach us from our youth that we should beware things like jumping to conclusions and sounding false alarms. As we grow into adulthood and experience more of life, we come to a deeper appreciation of why — by creating illusory havoc and unwarranted worry, behavior like that not only makes the world a more stressful place, it undermines our own credibility. Yet it’s apparent that we never fully learn that lesson. 

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Take modern journalism, for example. News outlets have always been tempted to use sensationalism to capture readers’ attention, but the worst offenders used to be relegated to grocery store checkout racks, where shoppers who linger in line could be coaxed to pick up a copy fully aware of what they were getting into. Today, however, clickbait headlines from even previously credible publications fill our social media feeds, feverishly trying to cajole our dopamine receptors into demanding more. In the old days, the role of a headline was to provide the gist of a story; too often today it’s to tempt us into suspecting just the opposite. I’ve come to the point where I not only don’t click the bait, I resent those who float it. Sensationalism has always undermined credibility; today’s clickbait undermines the very clicks it’s meant to generate. 

How misguided means betray good ends

In business, misguided means undermine good ends all the time. I began my career working on the advertising account of a national fast-food brand, and most of my entry-level job involved planning for and tracking massive coupon drops. When the coupons went out business went up, and when they wore out business dried up. I didn’t know much about how marketing worked at the time, but I remember thinking, “There has to be more to it than this.” As I watched the perceived value of my client’s offering steadily decline, I learned that discounting undermines a value proposition just as surely as gratuitous exclamation points in ads and emails undermine consumer trust. 

As I progressed in my career, eventually launching my own firm, I discovered how even the most well-intended means can undermine good ends. Once, when my company wasn’t doing well, we got to the point where when one of our employees resigned, we would just quietly not replace them. What I intended to keep on the down-low ended up sounding a companywide alarm, undermining my staff’s trust in a boss who wasn’t being as forthcoming as they thought he should be. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but in a close-knit organization you can’t fool any of the people any of the time. 

I’ve also observed over the course of a (now) long career how self-promotion undermines credibility, and that a humblebrag reveals more insecurity than accomplishment. This is a tough one to admit, because I, like you, am human, and I desire the respect and esteem of others. When I do something of which I’m proud or get recognized for some achievement, I naturally want others to know about it. But over time, I’ve realized that the people with whom I am most impressed are those who do great things without drawing attention to themselves. Just because LinkedIn makes it easy to post a story in which we’re featured or some recognition we’ve received doesn’t mean doing so is wise. As the proverb says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; A stranger, and not your own lips.” In a world of self-seeking, nothing impresses more than humility.

Are you undermining yourself?

There are endless examples in life and leadership of using ill-advised means to undermine good ends. We’re often blind to them, however, because to undermine something is to weaken or destabilize it insidiously or secretly, and only by degrees. That’s why it’s easy for any of us to inadvertently subvert our own objectives. By demanding respect, leaders undermine the respect people have for them.  By using scare tactics, scientists undermine the trust people place in science. By fostering panic, activists often undermine what are often legitimate concerns. And by refusing to pause and reflect on how we’re going about things, we each undermine our own ends. 

One way to deal with all this is to keep a long list saying we should avoid temptations to sensationalize, to discount, to sugarcoat and more; that we shouldn’t self-promote or humblebrag. But realization is more effective than prescription. Once I realized how easily means can undermine ends, I had a helpful test by which I could gauge the likely impact of my intentions. I use it often, though imperfectly, and hope that sharing it here is a good means that will lead to good ends for you. 


Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. McKee is the author of  “When Growth Stalls” and  “Power Branding.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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