Why Smart Leaders Use Corny Catchphrases

Tip for leaders: stop focusing on inspiration, and start focusing on navigation

Catchphrases have a bad reputation. They are corny. They are over-obvious. They sound dumb. As a result, we tend to avoid using them.  (Think about how you reacted the last time someone suggested you “work smarter, not harder.”)

But here’s the funny thing : When you visit highly successful cultures, you’ll notice they use a lot of catchphrases. I mean, they use tons of them. You can’t walk around for thirty seconds without hearing or seeing a corny-sounding catchphrase.

For example, here are a few you hear around Danny Meyer’s wildly successful restaurants: Creating raves… read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.

And here’s what you hear and see at KIPP, a hugely successful system of charter schools: All of us will learn… work hard, be nice… read, baby, read… no shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow… be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned.

If you spend time with the Navy SEALs, IDEO, Pixar, and other great groups, as I did during my research for my new book, The Culture Code, the pattern is the same. So the question is, What is going on?

The answer is, successful groups use using catchphrases in a highly targeted way: as cognitive scripts to define specific challenges they face. They aren’t catchphrases as much as navigational aids.

When you look closer, there are four types of catchphrases, each with their own guidance function. Let’s call them the North Star, Do’s, Don’ts, and Identity.  

Here are KIPP’s:

North Star: Work hard be nice

Do’s: Read, baby, read… if there’s a problem, we look for the solution… all of us will learn

Don’ts: No shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow 

Identity: Be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned… every detail matters

And here are Danny Meyer’s:

North Star: Creating raves for guests

Do’s: Read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled… mistakes are waves, servers are surfers… turning up the home dial

Don’ts: Skunking… your emotional wake

Identity: Athletic hospitality… the excellence reflex… loving problems… are you an agent or a gatekeeper?

See the pattern? The North Star provides the Why — the highest priority, the group aim. The Do’s and Don’ts describe the path on how to get there, and Identity defines key traits that distinguish the group from the rest of the world.

This pattern is not an accident. It’s essential, because it creates a “culture story” that captures the soul of the group — or, if you like, a narrative algorithm that provides the crucial connections between the Why, the Who, the How.

In other words, catchphrases aren’t corny — they are genius. Because purpose isn’t just about inspiration, but also about navigation. It’s about building a vivid, accessible roadmap with a set of emotional GPS signals to define identity and guide group behavior. 

Here are some tips for building your group’s roadmap:

• Seek to build a lot of catchphrases, all the time. Crowdsource the process. Use the ones that stick; ditch the ones that don’t. 

• Aim for simple, vivid images. Good catchphrases deliver one, simple, vivid idea.

• A good place to start is to clearly define the problems your people routinely encounter. If you can define the problem you face, you have the seed of a catchphrase.