Stop Treating Business Gurus as Prophets. Question Everything!

business gurus

In no domain that I can think of, do writers get a “free pass”, that is that their words are taken as axiomatic (or gospel if you prefer).  Even the most famous scientists of the 20th century, Einstein, Turing, Watson (DNA), lived with a torrent of criticism and debate through their lives. Certainly our time is characterized by the most heated debates, in economics, politics, religion, and science. Yet business “truths” seem above that.

The very fact that we stole the word “guru” from religion tells us a great deal about how we treat the ideas of a great number of business writers.

Is it not true that if a phrase on leadership is preceded by “according to Drucker…”, or a principle of change preceded by “Kotter says…”, it goes unquestioned, even when incomplete, out-of-date, or just plain wrong?

Let us take, for example, a Drucker-ism: “leadership is defined by results.”  Is it? Of course results matter (a lot), but do they define leadership?  We do not, I don’t think, admire leaders who produce results at any cost – indeed, we care a great deal about the process that produces results.  Furthermore, in a complex world, with random and unforeseeable outcomes, fantastic leaders will fail from time to time.  Or, results may take a long time to come.  A hunger for short-term results, in business, has many adverse consequences.

Another oft-quoted, but unchallenged, notion is Kotter’s “Step 1” of his eight-step change leadership process: “create a sense of urgency.”  One can imagine a business where that might be true, where change initiatives drift along, on the back burner, far from the top priorities of change leaders.   Today that is extremely rare.  Whether it be globalization, or the speed of information flows, the pace (urgency) with which today’s businesses must move is very fast.  Most business people today are urgency junkies, forever juggling things that need to happen “yesterday”.

Let us also consider the companies we admire today.  Google? IBM?  Is “urgency” something they do well?  Reflect for a moment on whether your favorite companies “create a sense of urgency” around change.  Well-run companies, and great leaders, are best at taking care of the non-urgent (the important/ non-urgent quadrant in Covey’s excellent model) – and keeping their eyes on the five and ten year vision.

Finally, urgency can be associated with fear, or stress.  In fact, the metaphor we taught in change leadership in the 1990s (mea culpa) was the “burning platform” – the most unhelpful change metaphor ever (and I have a very long list of horrible change metaphors).  This is simply incorrect and unhelpful – when people are under stress (trying to get off the platform), neuroscience suggests they make worse decisions, remember less, and learn more slowly.

Neither of those two statements (Drucker and Kotter) is completely wrong, but probably both are more wrong than right, and both, to me, seem anachronistic with respect to today’s business context.

The thing to note, to return to the point made in my first paragraph, is that hard debate and discussion rarely happen around these statements nor many pronouncements of “gurus”.    The situation is worsened by Twitter, where there simply is not space to elaborate ideas and people quickly like and retweet without (ever) thinking deeply about what was said.   This makes the world of business ideas increasingly shallow, and lowers the level of critique and debate of such ideas. (A woefully bad thing for business.)

The next time a business “truism” passes your way, pause and give it some thought, is it true? Always true? Still relevant? Helpful? Validated by research?

Book release – The Science of Successful Organizational Change: How Leaders Set Strategy, Change Behaviors, and Create Agile Cultures.

The Science of Organizational Change (FT Press) is just out, and in select (few) bookstores, and on Amazon.  One reviewer, Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, of Stanford, said “Gibbons applies scientifically founded, rigorous thought, and practical wisdom to this charlatan-filled domain.”  My sincere hope is that the book generates controversy and debate rather than attempting to have the final word on issues that are immensely complex. (If you like mice, cheese, penguins, and icebergs, it probably is not the book for you.)




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