Having studied the thinking and actions of top business leaders for some 30 years, many things stand out as characteristic of most top leaders. Given that they tend to emulate one another and share most of the same preconceptions of their social group, it is not surprising that a discernable pattern, or recipe, emerges.
This pattern is required for business and personal success (the two are intertwined), but it is also the pattern that can or will result in business and personal failure. If a leader is in the job long enough, there grows an equal chance of either outcome.
It breaks down as follows:
- Business Optimism: Be success-oriented, success benefits everyone, all problems will be overcome no matter how severe.
- Techno-Optimism: Technology is seen as necessary for success; new technologies will always be beneficial to achieving company strategies, goals, and objectives. Decisions to invest in new technologies that do not deliver the expected results are never a mistake.
- Business optimism and techno-optimism require top leaders to wear blinders because they are necessary to achieve strategies, goals, and objectives. Thus, leaders must minimize or ignore warnings and feedback. They must deny the existence of difficulty — it’s just bad information, not facts. They must minimize or ignore negative externalities such as suffering experienced by others within or external to the company. They must refuse to see or admit mistakes.
- Have confidence in self and peers, but not others lower in the hierarchy.
- Faith in markets, and that markets will serve the common good, but manipulate markets as needed to achieve strategies, goals, and objectives.
- Be persuasive relative to items 1-5, above, and emphasize one’s status and experience as the logical basis for decision-making and actions taken.
- Be purpose-driven, locked into the way of thinking of one’s peers. Do not express a willingness to change plans, see alternative paths, or admit mistakes, as these communicate weakness.
- One’s own viewpoint as the leader defines what is real and realism (what feels real). Having this viewpoint allows the top leader to go where others might stop or reassess.
- Do not think about what can go wrong; contingency is not needed because success is preordained.
- Past success guarantees future success. If things are not going well, then double-down — as many times as needed.
This recipe will look odd to anyone other than a top business leader (or authoritarian political leaders) because it is lacking in connection to the real-world (the material world), logic, sensibility, and practicality. It shows the extent to which business is an otherworldly — mystical, magical, spiritual, supernatural — phenomenon, one that has long been glorified. That is not surprising given its historical linkage to early forms of religion and the metaphysical world of money.
Points 1-10 above, produce a large gap between executives and the workers, both salaried and hourly. The latter don’t understand the former, and vice versa. This results in a lack of alignment between the top and everyone else, and accounts for many of the difficulties in getting things done (process not defined, too many people involved, takes a long time to get the result, rework is needed, etc.).
The fabled “Lean leader” that some of us have been or have had experience with recognize that items 1-10 do not apply to them — not in number and not to the degree that they apply to other leaders (the “classical management” leaders). The Lean leader defines what is real and realism by the genba, not by their own viewpoint. That is a huge difference that affects almost everybody and everything. Yet Lean leaders remain an anomaly in the business world, and that is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.