The Heroik Hour 23 – When Not To Follow The Leader

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On this episode I’m going to talk a bit about leadership and decision making, and the different ways we sabotage our thinking when we blindly follow the playbooks industry leaders and celebrities. The faulty logic that tricks us into fast decisions, that aren’t necessarily good ones.  We’re calling this one – when not to follow the leader, – alright let’s get started.

Have you ever heard a leader, a boss, a peer or a friend rationalize a decision by saying something like “Company X uses product Y and they’re a billion dollar company” ?

Maybe you’ve caught yourself saying something like it to your team.

I’ve heard successful CEO’s use this kind of reasoning in closed door meetings. The assumption there is if it worked for company X, it will work for us too. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And that little nugget of reasoning is what we’re going to talk about today.

When we use the logic, “Company X uses product Y and they’re a  Fortune 500,” or something like it, what we’re really doing, in the blink of an eye, in a split second, is deferring our judgement.

In a split second, we’re opting to follow the tactic of an industry leader, hoping for similar success, with very little evidence that the move was suited to our business. And leaders of companies large and small do it all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes, it works, but more often than not it belly flops, and people always seem to be confused or shocked when these kinds of decisions don’t workout.

So let’s take a good look at when not to follow the leader.

You might be thinking, what’s the big deal? What’s there to think through? Company X is a fortune 100 company doing really well. They’re relying on product Y. And, they’re having a lot of success with their business. Therefore, product Y is a good choice.

Many leaders rationalize it further and say things like. Company X is a  Fortune 100. They crush it.  They make billions. We want to be like Company X.  Company X is our muse. We want to model ourselves after company X. So why shouldn’t we use product Y?

The big deal is the leaps of logic and rigged thinking we use to trick ourselves and drive our decisions. The bottom line is that mimicking the tactics we can see at a superficial level, doesn’t guarantee that we will be successful at duplicating the success of others.

In fact it’s a crappy way to go unless you’re committed to a more sincere attempt at reverse engineering, using critical thinking and careful analysis of what you’re observing.

For argument’s sake, let’s be honest. This is basically the business equivalent of watching Jordan, Kobe, or LeBron crush it on the court, and you think it’s because of the shoes they’re wearing. And you want to buy a pair too. A new pair of Nike’s probably not going to help you get closer to dunking, not even when you account for the power of placebo and belief.

If you’re not into sports analogies, here’s a different way of viewing it – Tyler Dirden put it best in the movie Fight Club,

“Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken”

But some of the smartest CEO’s ignore the lesson, and elect to mimic the tactics and use the tools competitors and industry leaders, hoping to reap similar successes. You’d be amazed how fast, the rapid fire, gut decisions are made off of the bad intel of faulty logic.

As children, we’re all taught lessons about following trends for trends sake, but it’s hard to fight our biological programming. As a species, we’re hard wired to mimic others to fit in and feel safe, like we’re on the right course.

And, while you might get picked on less if you blend in, you won’t get the same results as the others doing the same thing.

Yet even at the Fortune 500 and 100 level, there are business leaders out there, treating the game like a fashion show, and making decisions, exclusively on what others are doing.

Even worse, there are many, many, many more VC’s, advisors, consultants and mentors, who pick all their mantras from the bestseller list, and follow suit, without analyzing the situation, the circumstances, or the company to see if the strategy, or tool is in alignment with the company they claim to serve.

So you know uneducated mimicry leads us astray, and that we’re tempted to do it to feel safe, fit in and survive.

But else makes it tricky when we follow the leader in business?

Point 2 –  You probably do not know by a quick glance look, if Product Y is actually helping or hurting Company X, especially if company X is big. Large companies even have trouble pinpointing what’s helping and hindering their successes.

That’s why they hire outside consultants like me. They’re inside the operation and they often don’t know with any degree of specificity what is really essential vs. what is not, and what is slowing them down and what is not. All we see is the technology on the surface. You don’t know if LeBron’s feet ache after wearing those Nike’s . Why? Because the great players are masters and have plenty of ways to compensate in other ways.

Big businesses can afford to take larger risks, and compensate by making adjustments in other profit centers, departments, teams, with other revenue streams, and you probably wouldn’t notice.

Point #3 –  Another horrible assumption we make as leaders, especially when looking at technology, is we look at the marketplace of tools, and think of them in simple tools.

We often don’t think of, or know the true cost or consequences of using Product Y. We just use our trusty short cut thinking that Company X is great, they use product Y, therefore, if we use product Y, we’ll be great too.

We spend less time in consideration, and only inspect the initial price tag we can quickly recognize. I know this because in B2B sales land, we leverage this to try and sell more stuff at a higher profit margin. This is why there’s always fine print, upsells, cross sells, and hefty price tag on the back end, when the other shoe eventually drops.

Yet people buy based on the look, the price tag, and which popular people are using Product Y. Even at the enterprise level.

For Example, imagine if using Product Y results in a net impact of a .1% loss in profits for that billion dollar company that you want to be like they might barely notice. But that .1% could be millions of dollars that would put  a smaller outfit, maybe like yours out of business.

I know this all too well with technology and Software as Service Platforms especially. These solutions have tremendous impact and unexpected influence on the behavior, values, and the entire culture of your company. But nobody thinks about that when they ask the CTO or IT guy to select a dashboard or toolset for their team, except for guys like me, who see and know all too well that the decision to use Product Y is costing Company X a fortune, and it cuts into their near and long term profits.

My point here is  – that if you’re company is smaller in size and resources than your muse, your idol, your company X, then those costs, that cut into your profits, which may be just a scratch for them can be fatal to you. And as leaders we need to be aware of that possibility.

Alright Big Picture- it’s important to reconsider if Company X is really the right muse for you in the first place.

Often times, as human beings, as leaders, we want to choose our heroes and muses , based on those at the absolute top of their game. The problem with this is that their game isn’t our game. They’re often in a completely different scenario, with different circumstances, obstacles, resources, and a completely different lens, vision, brand, culture and set of values compared to you. To put it simply all of these differences matter, and make many of the big boys a bad match to be your muse.

The tools we use, be they complex solutions, systems, methods, or workflows, or something as simple as the shoes that we wear,  need to be a fit for our circumstances, our goals, our vision, our companies. As a leader it’s your job to be more discerning, precise, and on point in regards to this level of alignment.

#4 Another assumption we like to make -because it helps us feel safe as we make leadership decisions, we defer judgement to those we think are better leaders than ourselves, or lean in to their reputation to make fast decisions that we want to feel good about.

Let’s talk about another example of the same kind of logic that trips up most leaders. Have you ever been in a conversation with a group of people and were told that “Mr X. disagrees, and he’s the CEO of this huge company” and then they assume because those things are true that Mr X. surely must be right?

This is the same kind of deferral of critical thinking we sabotage ourselves into all the time. As an advisor and consultant, this is a regular occurrence, especially in high-stakes discussions.

And in these moments, all due respect to everyone’s resume, I don’t care if that guy who disagrees with me was the ghost of Steve Jobs himself, the name and reputation alone are not strong arguments against a reasoned position. They count, but surely not for much, because we know that good ideas and better ideas can come from anywhere in the organization, and must be weighed primarily on their merits.

Now of course, depending on which side of the conversation you’re on, either selling an idea up the food chain, or discussing an idea with a team member, you could be wrong, or mistaken, or just haven’t factored in all the important angles.  You could be wrong, and you may be the type who is tempted to shrink away from  sharing your position when countered someone’s reputation. But accepting an idea as valid based only on the person presenting it, without evaluating the merits or reasoning, you do yourself a disservice. You basically deny or reject your own faculties for reasoning, and yield to intimidation tactic, which is basically a form of social bullying. Giving into a bully -tactic isn’t the way of a leader, neither is retreating from confrontation – unless it’s a strategic retreat of course. It amazes me how many discussions and arguments are brought to a close, simply by a business version of name dropping.

Don’t be swayed by the mere mention of a famous name. Dare to be a free thinker who perceives that even the great ones can be wrong.

I’ve worked with some of the world’s best and brightest minds, and leaders of the largest companies, and I’ve seen all of them make some of the dumbest decisions not only for their business but everyday life.

I know it feels uncomfortable to really visualize just how human even the best of us are. Yet as a leader, it’s critical that you remember that, and not defer your judgement. It’s imperative to keep your mind in the game, inspect arguments for their merits and be disciplined and discerning. Good ideas can come from anyone, even the janitor. And in the face of the merits of a good idea, would you still defer to some other great CEO? Heck no.

Remember, that even Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet made horrible calls that even you – yourself wouldn’t have made. Don’t sell yourself or your team short by selling out and backing away from your own thought process and decision making just because CEO X would do it differently.

You too are capable of great thoughts and ideas so don’t defer your judgement to celebrities or the rich and powerful without thinking carefully.

It’s one thing to disagree with your team, it’s another entirely to tune out or ignore them and their thoughts.  And this is exactly what you do if you add extra weight to a name vs. their idea. It’s hard to catch ourselves from tipping the scales with a little celebrity bias and hero worship but it is part of leadership.

Wisdom comes from within. And within your organization is your team, who know your goals, needs, vision, brand, culture and circumstances. Their opinions  may be reflecting those aspects. So  – allow your leadership to be informed by different perspectives, but don’t defer judgement to others, no matter how tempting  or safe that course appears.

Using the same tools or methods as Apple, or Google, or mimicking the strategies of their leaders, won’t necessarily do much for you. They’re different brands, cultures, and minds, playing a different game. Let them inform and inspire your thinking but don’t defer your judgement of what’s best for you, or your company to them or their playbook. They were not thinking about you specifically when they chose product X or path 6, – They were doing what great leaders do, evaluating decisions through the lens of their market, their business, their brand, their culture their people. You should do the same.