ARE FANATICS OR FOOLS THE PROBLEM ?
April 23, 2012 4 Comments
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
Whilst it may not have been his primary intent, I always find it interesting how accurate Bertrand Russell was about the business world.
I understand that executives have to show absolute certainty and no doubts when presenting themselves or their plans to their people, but when looking at building a business strategy and direction for an organisation, I have found that those that start with absolute certainties often end up with doubts, whereas those that start with some doubts can ultimately build some certainties.
I love people who are enthusiastic and passionate about the world, their business and their ideas, and I have tended to believe that “nothing succeeds like excess”, but find it very hard to work with fanatics who believe that they are the only ones who have access to, and an understanding of, the ultimate truths in life, whether it covers their business strategy or their understanding of how to work with and manage people.
Like their religious counterparts, business bigots not only believe that their way is the only way, but as a result believe that everyone who diverges from their version of the truth is a heretic and hence needs to be purged. These managers tend to surround themselves either with those looking for a messianic vision or with “yes-men” who toe the line and who offer no dissension, no questioning of the path to be taken and hence who offer little chance for driving change and innovation. Skilled managers not only hire people who will challenge them but also add a few “crazies” to the mix who will challenge most things as a matter of principle.
The problem that I find with managers who are fanatical about their own beliefs is that they either have little ability to drive true long term sustainable innovation, or else tend to drive their version of innovation down their own narrow alley, as summed up by Winston Churchill with “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
So, at which point does a fanatic become a fool ?
The easy answer is that a fanatic becomes a fool when he gets it wrong, for as long as he is deemed to be right, he is seen as a visionary.
Steve Jobs was seen by many to be such a visionary and fanatic after forming Apple in 1976 with Ronald Wayne (who sold out in 1977 for $800) and Steve Wozniak who had just invented the Apple 1. They enjoyed considerable successes and Jobs was seen as being charismatic and persuasive, but he was also seen as an erratic and temperamental manager who believed it was “… either my way or the highway …”. Despite the successful launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the following year Jobs lost his attempt at a boardroom coup against John Sculley the CEO, who had been brought in from Pepsi. The board had sided with Sculley because, despite being told to stop doing it, Jobs continued to “ … launch expensive forays into untested products …”, wasting R+D budget at unsustainable rates. The board removed Jobs from his management position, resulting in his resignation and departure from Apple to form Next.
The board had sided with the manager rather than the fanatic.
Many analysts believe that had the Jobs coup succeeded , the company, which struggled under Sculley, would have found it even harder to stay afloat under Jobs had he won the boardroom battle for control of Apple.
He came back to Apple in 1996, when they purchased Next, and took the helm in 1997 until his death in 2011.
This time the fanatic was right, and his fanaticism drove Apple towards its position today as the world’s most valuable company and well on the way to becoming the first company with a market cap of over $1 trillion.
But I believe that Steve Jobs is the rare case where fanatics can actually sustain the business success for a long term.
The problem is that the so called “Steve Jobs leadership style” has become a holy piece of corporate truism, when it is in reality a work of fiction, asI find it fascinating that a man who was a great “gadget designer” has become the epitome of the great leader.
Jobs always believed that people who disagreed with him just didn’t understand Apple or the market and he didn’t tolerate them. He paid little attention to building a successor despite being aware of his illness since 2003, and built a culture where people at Apple were scared to get into an elevator with him in case even a minimal conversation with him could result in them losing their job, despite the fact that this “Elevator Encounter” story was pure fiction and was only meant to illustrate his mercurial and despotic style (see http://vanshardware.com/2010/07/the-legend-of-apples-steve-jobs/ ). However, the story and its resultant culture creation in Apple is a true indication of the Steve Job’s style of management.
Fortune called Jobs “… one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs …” and Jef Raskin, a former colleague, said of him “Steve would have made an excellent king of France”, alluding to the fact that disagreement and disobedience would automatically result in death.
The issue is that leadership success is very situational, and Jobs came back into Apple at a time when his vision, gadgetry and fanaticism were needed to turn around the company’s fortunes, but to believe that this formula then applies well to other start-ups or companies generally is nonsensical.
Fanatics have their place, but for very specific situations and mostly for limited times, as they will always be unreasonable, and while it takes unreasonable people to drive change, it takes professional management to turn change into sustainable success.
As even understood by a true “King of France”, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte said “There is no place in a fanatic’s head where reason can enter.”