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Category Archives: Leadership Development

Leaders, Wisdom of the Masses, and the US Economy

Common sense isn’t. Nor is conventional wisdom.

Yet political leaders and the media continue to perpetuate the fallacy that consensus must be more reasonable and more right simply because most people seem to think it so.

In spite of the recent trend of business books touting the “wisdom of the masses,” the fact is that by and large, groups just aren’t that smart. While, by definition, they are good at determining what is popular, they are usually terrible at determining the best way to define something, let alone decide the wisest course of action.

Crowds and groups can create consensus just fine. But consensus is usually reached via compromise, and compromise is rarely the path to a great or courageous decision.  Compromise is merely one way for a group of people to reach a decision. Here’s the deal about compromise: Once a group decides that compromise is the goal, they are actually more focused on assuaging the emotions of the moment than they are on finding the best solutions to the problems.

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Wisdom of the Masses

“I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” — Thomas Carlyle

Here’s some contrary thinking for those so inclined… I firmly believe that future historians will look back at our current culture and blame our belief in what we currently call, “the wisdom of the masses,” as one of the reasons for the demise of our culture.

Leaders take note. Our current tendency to hold popular opinion as a measure of veracity flies in the face of all we know about history. Past cultures embraced the wisdom of the masses when it came to things like slavery and witchcraft.

Never before have I seen so many intelligent business leaders use the term, “wisdom of the masses,” as a foundational principle for running their businesses. Before I offend the sensibilities of any readers—assuming I haven’t already—let me be clear about why the wisdom of the masses can work for some business plans yet has absolutely no place in others.

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The Dangers of Groupthink (Betting on the Favorite)

Animal Kingdom is the current 2:1 favorite for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. So why not bet $100 if I can double my money and go with the favorite? At horse race tracks, the favorite wins fewer than 30% of the time. But that doesn’t stop millions from plunking their money down. The media drives the story of “the favorite”, we buy in, literally, and expect Animal Kingdom to win, or perhaps, are disappointed when Animal Kingdom does not in fact win. (Multiply this effect when the possibility of a Triple Crown winner drives the storyline, which is not the case this year).

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The Metaphor in Chief

In yesterday’s blog I wrote about the importance of metaphor in shaping how people think of ideas. I also predicted that our President would make use of the power of metaphor in his speech last night. This of course was an easy bet. Most leaders understand the power of metaphor and use it in nearly every speech.

What I didn’t mention was that the news media will always key in more on the metaphor than on the content of the speech. They make for good sound bytes. Think of Reagan’s, “Shiny City on a Hill.” Sure enough the media did just that. Here’s a photo of today’s Wall Street Journal.

The pulled quote reads, “If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of
Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

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Metaphors Matter

Metaphors Matter. This was the headline of a small but significant report recently published in the Wall Street Journal.

The article focuses on a Stanford University study that demonstrates the power of metaphor in shaping thought in communication.  The study was recently cited in a new book entitled, “Metaphors We Think With:  The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning,” by Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky.

The study queried students. They were asked to read two reports about a crime in a particular city and recommend solutions. In the first report, crime was described as a, “wild beast preying on the city.”  The second report was identical except that it began with a different metaphor.  It described crime as a, “virus infecting the city.”

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Common Lies About Leadership: The Hard Truth

Warning: You may not want to read this one.

A dear friend and business owner recently sent me a blog defining core leadership skills. While the blog had some useful distinctions that I found smart and interesting, it also included some traits that are not, in fact, essential to effective leadership. They are actually personality traits that, to an American sensibility, determine good character rather than strong leadership. But the fact remains that they are absolutely inconsequential to determining effective leadership. Allow me to explain.

In the The Power of Losing Control ebook, I devote an entire section of the book to the power of influence and how it works within the social make-up of human beings. I quote from the book, “Effective leadership is determined first and foremost by one thing—the willingness of others to follow.” Every essential trait to one becoming an effective leader (note my use of the word essential) must necessarily be based on influencing that willingness.

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Good leaders recognize game-changers

Last week I attended a wedding.  As the new bride and groom walked past our pew toward the exit at the end of the ceremony, one of my friends turned to me and said, “Well, that’s a game-changer.”

As one who didn’t marry until I was 39, I could relate to what she was saying.  Marriage is a game-changer in that it changes lives in very significant ways—usually for a long time.  Those of us who have been married and who have observed our married friends know that when couples realize and accept the game-changing nature of the union sooner rather than later, they fare much better.

There are game-changers in business as well. Game-changers don’t happen often. They usually arrive unannounced. They can be good or bad. They can happen to you, or, you can make them happen.

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Is your ‘legacy’ knowledge an anchor, a rudder or irrelevant?

In this economy of sea change and uncharted waters, you need to understand the role your legacy knowledge should take.

Recently the Wall Street Journal featured a front-page story on the new CEO of General Motors. The article pointed out that the new CEO is not an auto industry insider, his leadership style is a bit brash, and that this type of person might just be what it takes to turn the company around.

Obviously, this was a PR-led piece fed to the media by GM. After the bashing GM has taken by government leaders intent on justifying the bailout money, GM’s goal was to get the public (read, potential new investors in the upcoming IPO) to believe that GM will run better than ever under new, different leadership. Implied in the piece is that old time industry insiders lack an ability to see things as they are and drive sustainable change. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it always the case, but quite often, it is true.

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Scrambling for good leaders?

Scrambling for good leaders? Consider leadership development, not just leadership training.

As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday (Aug. 2, 2010), companies are finding themselves short on leadership talent as they begin to rebound from the economic downturn, and are scrambling to implement training programs.
While HR Managers dust off the files from the training programs they put on hold 18-24 months ago, the sharp ones will see this revamp as a great opportunity to consider whether their leadership programs are teaching the company’s bright stars not just what to do, but how to do it.

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Compromise to Optimize

Most of us like it when things go our way. That’s just human nature. But always doing just what we want whenever we want isn’t always good for us. As Dr. M. Scott Peck pointed out on page 53 of his mega-bestseller, The Road Less Traveled, “It is natural to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth. Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until it becomes second nature.”

Experience has taught me that if I really want to maximize opportunities and outcomes, I need to ignore my immediate desire to take charge and instead think about how I might use compromise in order to optimize. This means learning to go against my nature and letting go of my natural human desire to have everything go my way.

Compromise to Optimize Against Human Nature

This life lesson has served me well through the years—both personally and professionally. I can’t possibly count the times that an event, an evening, an outcome, a relationship or an experience wasn’t in some way improved because I chose to not assert my will on something.

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