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The Big Leadership Con
Good leaders take intelligent risks. Weak leaders bring in a ‘big name’ to provide documented air-cover for their own arses if it all goes wrong.
Following my post last week lamenting the role that the ‘big four’ consultancies had in sullying the name of consultants, there were some great comments on LinkedIn about the motivations of leaders who appoint them. In essence; they use the consultancy brand as a personal shield against later failure.
I’d been thinking about this subject a lot again recently after reading that a couple more corporate innovation labs had been closed down (you can guess who set them up). These labs almost never work because they’re innovation theatre; a showy way for the organisation’s leadership to tell the world (read: shareholders and vocal investors) that they are committed to investing in new ideas.
Of course, they’re often doing nothing of the sort. They’re feathering their own nests.
Leaders fall into two camps: those primarily concerned with furthering their own interests via the success of their companies; and those with convictions born of a broader purpose for their organisation or the betterment of the lives of the people they represent, whether that’s a company full of people and its customers or an entire nation.
The good ones take intelligent risks. They trust their instincts and those of smart people around them. They back those people. They push hard to do hard things. They back big ideas and take bold decisions. They realise that it’s their job to provide air cover for the people taking those big ideas forward.
The weak ones bring in a ‘big name’ to provide documented air-cover for their own arses if it all goes wrong. They’re the same people who spin up a lab, with no real commitment to taking any risks to support the efforts of the people working in it.
If you’re a leader and you need to protect yourself with endless external validation before you act, you are not a leader. You’re a manager, most likely the caretaker of something that someone else built.
Let’s be clear. You cannot prove a big idea in advance. And it’s not a bold decision if it can all be pre-rationalised by a team of ex-accountants and MBAs. If there’s enough hard data available to build a water-tight business case, your ‘innovation’ will be built on – at best – extrapolations of historic data, i.e. the past. Our lives are, instead, full of products and services where there was no identifiable need before they arrived, and often counter-indicating data.
There’s an expression I’ve used and loved for many years: ‘You can’t find the future in a spreadsheet, but it does need to look really good in one when you get there.’ It says it all I think.
Visionary leaders understand this intuitively. The bigger the idea, the harder it is to pre-rationalise. So, instead of spending millions to protect your own behind, save them and invest in creating a better future for everyone else.