Stereotypes exist. Whether in the mind of a naïve six-year-old girl, or a well-educated, mature professional, we tend to picture certain type of people in a certain way.
If I had been asked the question, ‘What makes a successful business leader?’ last summer, my answer would probably have been, ‘a sophisticated and rational male or female behaving like an ADULT, i.e. Ambitious, Dispassionate, Uncaring, Longing for money and Tough’. In this way, he or she can maximise profitability and/or share price of the company. Biased as I may sound, I’m not alone. The characteristics people conventionally related to leaders are often masculine with those adjectives used.
However, after the MBA and being exposed to various lectures, professors, guest speakers and articles, my perception has changed radically. Now, if I were to give advice to someone who wants to be a great leader, I would say, ‘Lead as a KID’. By ‘KID’, I mean to Keep it simple, make seemingly Irrational decisions, and Dare to be yourself. The rest of this essay will explain each of those points further.
Keep it Simple
‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’
----Leonardo da Vinci
Some people may argue that we are living in an ever-changing VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) environment, therefore it is impossible to keep it simple. However, it is for this very reason that a leader needs the competence to simplify the complexity. In fact, it takes more effort and harder work to simplify things than to complicate them.
At a strategy level, simplicity means that, when outlining the strategy or vision of a company, use the most straightforward words people can understand and easily communicate. The mission statements of some companies are so complicated that even the CEO him/herself cannot explain. This does not only apply to internal employees, but also to external customers. When the employees do not know which mountain they are conquering, it is doubtful if they can reach the top. Similarly, when the customers do not understand the product/service in plain language, they tend to get confused and not buy in. For instance, people can effortlessly label Google as a search engine and Facebook as a social media platform, but not for Yahoo.
At an implementation level, simplicity with mutual trust can generate efficiency and save costs. When Tesco Bank suffered from cyber-attacks last November, instead of going through layers and layers of reporting and approving, Benny Higgins the CEO adopted the simplest approach of asking for help from the people who knew the best and listened to the advice of the floor staff, which fast tracked the problem solving process and worked really well. Another case in point is the human resources stance at Netflix. Along with their ‘Unrestricted Holiday’ principle, which makes most employees more productive and responsible, the company’s expense policy is in five words only: ‘Act in Netflix’s best interests’. Employees are empowered and expected to spend company money austerely, as if it were their own. The result has been highly positive and actually reduced costs, compared with lengthy rules and prescriptions.
Make Seemingly Irrational Decisions
‘Make mom proud.’
----Box Inc. Value
The era of big data and artificial intelligence is coming. Business leaders are presented with increasing amount of numbers in financial reports, profit/loss statements and utility analyses, and endeavour to make the most rational and logical decisions. However, is this really the case and by being ‘rational’ do we just maximise the digit next to the dollar sign, then tick the box? How about those intangible things such as laugh, love and life? Surprising as it may sound, life does have a financial figure under the rationality rule. For example, Ford was reported to be aware of the design defects in its Pinto models that made crash-related fires more likely to happen. However, after an evaluation of all the redesigning benefits, including the prevention of around 180 deaths (approved figure of $200,000 per casualty) each year, Ford concluded that the costs of $11 per automobile outweighed the benefits. In consequence, lives were lost due to this so-called rational decision. Similar things happened at Toyota again in 2009-2011.
Reflections have to be made and lessons to be learnt. Admittedly, we are no better than computers when it comes to calculation or data processing. Our strength actually lies in emotional intelligence, such as passion and compassion, which machines find it difficult to acquire and learn. The ironic fact is, while data scientists are making efforts to add emotions and sympathies to robots, we as human beings are abandoning them to become more cold-blooded and proudly brand it as ‘rational’.
The role of quantitative analysis in leadership through accounting and financial reporting is undoubtedly indispensable, but great business leaders look beyond numbers and data because they are conscious of the flip side of it, i.e. short-termism. While people understand soft goals and trade-offs, algorithms will pursue a specific objective single-mindedly. Machines may be intelligent, yet intelligence is not the same as wisdom. With long-term vision in mind, leaders are wise enough not to make the ‘most rational’ decision. Instead, they embrace obliquity and go for the ‘seemingly irrational’ route for comprehensive welfare and sustainability.
Here comes an acid test. When facing a business dilemma, just ask two questions: 1) Can I sleep well at night after making this choice? 2) Would my mom be proud of my decision? If both answers are ‘yes’, then congratulations. And if more ‘irrational decisions’ like these could be made, there may not be so many ethical issues and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) may not be such a heated topic as it is now.
Dare to be Yourself
‘Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken.’
Let’s face it, it takes considerable courage to be oneself, especially for business leaders. Be genuine and authentic to both yourself and other people is a luxury in today’s business world. It is difficult to resist the temptation to copy and follow other people’s leadership styles, especially if it is encouraged and praised by the mass media and becomes a fashion. A popular motto suggests, ‘fake it until you make it’, but not all fakes have a happy ending. It is not a bad idea to learn from successful leaders, but if it does not truly fit you it could take up too much energy and have a counter-effect on your own feelings and people’s perceptions of you being pretentious. You will be struggling with this self-contradiction in the deep mind, and tend not to have consistent behaviours. This cognitive dissonance will impede your progress to becoming a great leader.
This issue is more prominent for female leaders, who have tried hard enough to cut through the glass ceiling but found their stereotypically feminine traits such as kind, gentle and affectionate may not be perceived as popular/valuable or even become weaknesses. ‘Lean in’, Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook urges. But what if I do not want to? Can I still serve as a great business leader while being true to myself? Although the thorns of a rose could be inconvenient, they also make the flower unique. As Sun Tzu mentioned in the Art of War, while over-played strengths become weaknesses, weaknesses can also be transformed into strengths. Therefore, be kind with principle, be gentle but decisive, show affection through understanding and compassion is a better strategy than pretending to be hard, harsh and heartless for the sake of it. The choice is all yours in terms of ‘lean in’ or ‘lie down’ for leadership style, as long as you feel confident, comfortable and content.
Whether you are an English blacksmith making swords in 1717 or an American CEO in a company producing guided missile systems in 2017, certain core values, basic principles and human nature apply throughout the history and grow even more prominent with the lapse of time. The world has not changed as much as it may appear to have done.
‘Lead as a KID’. Keep it simple, because sometimes the simplest things are the most powerful and we can easily forget that. Make seemingly Irrational decisions for a sound night’s sleep and to make mom proud. Dare to be yourself. Just as ‘no two leaves are alike’, no two leaders are alike, and we embrace different leaders to make our world more diversified and dynamic.
The road to becoming a great business leader can be rocky, and requiring support from the team. Remain humble as a kid, while being confident to exert influence and do as little or as much as you want, to change our planet for better or worse. You are the boss.