Form and Function

Form and Function by Dr. Robert Gerwig

This week has been a lot of fun. I had the privilege of spending four days with leaders from a variety of backgrounds. … These leaders have lived and traveled all over the globe. These leaders have a wealth of experience with a wide variety of backgrounds. These leaders have many years of practical, measurable and value-added results. They have received accolades, awards and medals. They have received great feedback from peers, subordinates and bosses. They have been tested and come through with shining colors.

It was an amazing week of learning, dialogue, self-reflection and action. These leaders taught me a lot and reinforced several key tenants of world-class leadership. Sometime during the week, I started thinking about a particular question. You may have heard the question (in one form or another). It is, “Which is more important, form or function?” A paraphrase of this question would be, “Which is more important, substance or show?” Looking good or delivering value?

Many people who aspire to be a leader are concerned about their outward appearance. They want to look good. They want to dress in expensive clothes, drive a luxury car and sport a stylish hairdo. In short, they want to look good. They’re concerned about “form.” They’re concerned about their appearance. They want to look the part. They’re concerned about their looks.

There’s nothing wrong with this, to a degree. Leaders should be well-groomed and dress appropriately. Leaders should have good personal hygiene. Leadership “form” is important, to an extent. However, it can be overused. When this is the case, the organization suffers. When the leader is more worried about their appearance than results, there is a problem. When the leader is more worried about how they look to their boss than how they support their employees, there is a problem. When the leader is more worried about what others can do for him, than what he can do for them, there is a problem.

“Form” doesn’t deliver results by itself. Just because you have new clubs doesn’t mean you’ll be able to shoot par. Just because you buy an expensive sports car doesn’t mean you’ll be a great driver. Just because you have a degree from an Ivy League school doesn’t mean you’ll be a great businesswoman.

“Form” isn’t bad, if it’s coupled with function (the ability to deliver results, build people and create a healthy organization). A leader who demonstrates “function” knows how to deliver results. They know how to serve others. They know how to build their character. They know how to add value to the organization.

This week I was reminded by many great leaders about the importance of “function.” There is a place for “form”, but only if it complements or augments “function.” If you can only have one, take function. If you can have both, great. There’s nothing wrong with a leader who looks good on the outside while delivering results and growing others. There is something wrong with a “leader” who looks great on the outside, but doesn’t serve others in the organization.

A couple weeks ago I had a great espresso macchiato at a local coffee shop. While sitting outside enjoying the cool morning, I saw a bike stand. You might have seen these before. A clever person has taken an old bike frame and created a bike stand (or rack) that you can use to lock up your bike. I think it’s clever. To me, it demonstrates “form” (it’s a bit artistic) and “function” (it serves as a great bike stand). It’s a good reminder of how our own personal leadership should be manifested. It’s great to have both form and function, but if you can have only one, choose function. It would be better to have a plain bike rack that worked and helped keep your bike secure than to have a nice looking, cool, hip bike rack that was not able to secure your bike. Agree?

How about you? What are some examples of leaders you know who demonstrate “form” and “function”? What about examples of leaders who demonstrate “function” only?

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]


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