The Australian leadership void: More perspiration required
A six-foot tall poster highlights the entrance of Terminal 3’s bookstore. Promoting a must-read inspirational called the Naked CEO, its caption shouts out, “DREAM BIG, PURSUE YOUR PASSIONS AND BE INSPIRED". Perhaps unfairly, I’m not going to give this book even a glimmer of finding its way onto my reading list.
It’s just that every time I pick up an 'airport' business book I’m left astounded by how authors reliably stretch one or two key ideas into a whole volume. Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim & Mauborgne is a good example of clever curation and relabelling of old ideas. There’s not a lot of new material in there, and what is presented is spread sparingly through pages of stories and anecdotes designed to convince the reader that their concept works. Sadly, many of these overextended pamphlets offer little, if any, evidence that what they are promoting in fact works.
Thoughtful critics would argue that much of the so-called business wisdom that is being consumed today is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Or in more scientific terms; correlation does not prove causality.
Instead of undertaking proof many inspirationally-oriented authors make liberal use case studies (which one could argue are simply stories based on revisionist history) that highlight the conquests of corporate heroes. Their stories are invariably woven around carefully arranged cycles and pyramids.
There’s no shortage of authors and speakers holding out inspiring achievements as evidence for their theories, but as compelling as it might look, we still need to assess the relevance of their experience for our own circumstances.
Inspirational speakers are often not change agents
A case in point. Several months ago, I attended a breakfast gathering sponsored by the Victorian Chamber of Business. Crown Casino’s Palladium was crammed with hundreds of bleary eyed middle management types who swarmed in for an early morning helping of inspiration with their five-star cooked breakfast.
The main attraction was Victoria Cross and Medal of Gallantry recipient Ben Roberts-Smith. It looked as though a thousand people had turned up. Robert-Smith’s presentation was well rehearsed and flawlessly delivered. He took us on a vivid tour of the Battle of Tizik and highlighted key principles of military leadership and planning along the way.
It was a remarkable performance, but I now wonder, of the hundreds of people who were clearly touched by Roberts-Smith’s story that day, how many used what they learnt to implement a lasting and valuable change? How many, today, could recall the lessons of his magnificent presentation if confronted with a major decision or challenge?
Now, this is not a critique of Ben Roberts-Smith or his message. But I am using this example to highlight how our collective binging on inspiration diverts attention away from the things that truly count when it comes to leadership. When Roberts-Smith gave his talk, he didn’t once mention a great hero or inspiring figure, and he certainly didn’t try to make himself out to be one either; instead, he talked passionately about his mates and the importance of rigorous training in proven tactics, as well as a handful of principles that he came to rely on for making tough decisions on the go.
While examining the outcomes of rare and extreme circumstances can be instructive, how much do these explorations help when dealing with everyday challenges? I’m not sure that they do. Roberts-Smith d id not suddenly find his inspiration and became a hero, his efforts and his ultimate success on that day in Tizik were a lifetime in the making.
A major problem with inspiration is that it has a very short half-life. So instead of binging on inspiration, I’m arguing that we pursue a proper education on topics of leadership and people. There’s no shortage of scientific knowledge in the field. Social scientists and psychologists have made incredible progress over the years. (By the way, I’m still hearing senior leaders refer to Maslow in their planning sessions. Sometimes I just don’t have the heart to let them know that the Hierarchy of Needs has long been debunked as a motivational theory – so please get up-to-date if you feel you need to.) My key point here is that the ability to make a lasting change in anything, requires significant persistence and effort – so much more than the initial f