ARE FANATICS OR FOOLS THE PROBLEM ?

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
Bertrand Russell

Whilst it may not have been his primary intent, I always find it interesting how accurate Bertrand Russell was about the business world.

via Wikimedia Commons


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.

Author: jurvetson; Source: flikr; via Wikimedia Commons


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.”

via Wikimedia Commons; GNU Free Documentation License


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4 Responses to ARE FANATICS OR FOOLS THE PROBLEM ?

  1. Tim Collins says:

    Woz was a lot more fun to be around, as was Kildall who told IBM to shove it where the sun don’t shine.
    After all, it is only a game.

  2. Allen says:

    It is an irony that Napoleon said those words (which are undoubtedly correct), when you consider how terribly he violated that rule in the latter half of his reign.

    I enjoy reading military history and it is amazing how many geniuses start out with astounding success and then fall equally fast. The prime examples that come to mind in modern history are Napoleon and Hitler; to a lesser extent Patton and McArthur.

    There is a consistent pattern at play which you summarize beautifully at the beginning of this post. In the beginning, these geniuses are able to successfully alloy their amazing gifts with a limited but useful sense of self-doubt, seeking the opinions of others and constantly checking their judgment based on reality. This was the case with Napoleon’s great victories until 1806 and Hitler’s masterful bloodless conquests pre WW2. They show breathtaking judgment. But then almost inevitably supreme hubris sets in – they have now succeeded beyond their own wildest imaginations and quickly discard the carefulness that led them to so many victories.

    They refuse to listen to advisors because who can tell a man something useful when he thinks he knows everything! Hitler began treating the vaunted Prussian military corps that had planned his greatest victories in the West, as little more than office boys. Napoleon, the fervent evangelist of the French revolution, coronated himself as an emperor (not king), and styled himself as a modern day Caesar. It is not a mere coincidence then that the Napoleonic and Nazi empires fell away so quickly immediately after they had reached their zeniths.

    I have often wondered in the military sense about the counterfactual if even Alexander the Great had lived longer than he did. His was a classical case of empire overstretch and like Napoleon, he would have lived to most of that which he had conquered, lost. Greece simply did not have the material sources to hold on to as large an empire as he had conquered. A classic case of biting off more than he could chew.

    I think the more apt saying by Napoleon that would summarize the view of your article would be “It is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous”. – He must have known it better than anyone else as he said it while escaping back to Paris in a horse carriage after his disastrous invasion of Russia, one that would cripple and ultimately destroy his empire.

    • leshayman says:

      Allen, thank you for a studied, knowledgeable comment. The move from hero to zero seems to start when the level of ego becomes more dominant than the actual level of genius. Les

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