My dear mother long since passed from this life used the shorthand “mind your p’s and q’s” to signal me and my siblings that we were to be on our best behavior. Who knew some forty years later, I might come across the origins of the phrase while exploring the ever dynamic and future-focused printing and graphic communications industry.
A bit of history. There was a time when type was set by hand. The individual letters (wood and later lead) were taken from large wooden trays holding characters of the alphabet and placed into a composing stick. Once all the characters comprising the needed message were in place, the type was locked up and a cast was made. This is the basis of printing text invented by Gutenberg. One of the challenges of the day was keeping the right alpha or numeric character in the right slot in the tray and having a discerning eye to know which character was which. For example was the character a “p” or a “q”? Hence minding your p’s and q’s became shorthand for being certain you were placing the correct characters in the correct place on the composing stick.
As leaders there is certain poetry to minding our p’s and q’s beyond being on our best behavior. Minding the little problems, so they don’t become big ones. Seeing the benefits of keeping precise order for some things like databases and perhaps dumping out the letter tray, to renew a process or program that isn’t working. Choosing our words (and by extension our letters) carefully to truly be an inspiration or motivator to those around us looking for new direction. It is easy to be cynical and even doubtful about our capacity to lead in circumstances not of our own making and seemingly beyond the capacities of society yet alone our organizations. Yet like hand setting type one character at a time, setting our goals and objectives in character by character fashion we can find a pathway forward and a future for those who rely on our capacity to do so. We have come a long way from those early days of craftsmanship. There is certain artistry to the work of leadership not unlike that found in hand type and letterpress reproduction. The uniquely rich feel and texture of embossed type on paper is a reminder not of a lost art but rather the richness of history and in our desire for differentiation a way to look at the future by touching our past.
It is said there’s another story about p’s and q’s referring to quarts and pints in British pubs, but I think I’ll leave that explanation to my friends at the Beer Institute for another time.