Mar
31

Leadership requires discipline, especially in choosing advice

By Gary Clayton

Being a leader is not easy. It requires discipline, especially if you are in it for the long-haul. The discipline has to extend into all of your activities: marketing, sales, purchasing, operations, and financial, to name a few. It takes a special discipline to seek out and listen to others – and then not take their advice.

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.
–G. K. Chesterton

We know that Chesterton’s advice works in the stock market: when others are buying, the price is high and it’s time to sell. Those few of us (contrarians) who were smart enough to heed this advice managed to miss the recent precipitous drop in the market. But what about in general?

Discipline is a key leadership skill in choosing among experts

Leaders have been hiring experts for centuries. Trade between cities depended upon path-finders, experts who knew how to navigate the seas or scouts who could find a safe route through the mountains and deserts. Yet the leader was the captain of the ship or the master of the caravan or wagon-train.

Usually, the path-finders had made the trip before and had some idea of what they would find. They based their exploratory trips upon what they had seen before and what they could see now. They didn’t know for sure what the weather would bring or whether hostile forces would suddenly appear. They didn’t know whether disease would break out among the group or whether something mechanical would breakdown.

The captain/master was the final decision-maker. Yet he had an additional challenge. He didn’t know whether the path-finders were being entirely honest. Did the path-finders really seek out all reasonable options – or just routes they had been on before? Was one of the path-finders in alliance with a hostile force?

Things haven’t changed much today, except that the experts/path-finders come with college degrees, fancy brochures and pre-packaged methodologies. And there are many, many more of them. How do you choose among them?

Be clear on what you are facing - the usual or the unusual

The first step in choosing experts is being clear on what you are facing. Is it something that represents business as usual – or is it something outside of everyday business, a crisis like the start of our current deep recession?

Most experts deal with everyday business. They became experts by an accumulation of everyday business experiences. They became so good at it that they were able to codify it and create fancy brochures and methodologies. Words that they love include “cost-cutting” and “optimizing”, because what they are expert in doing, is following the path dictated by their previous experience. They will bring you into conformance with what their past experience tells them is possible. Thus, they will make you as good, as efficient, as low-cost as they have made other organizations. What they are not likely to do, is make your organization forward-looking and innovative. These are the experts whose advice Chesterton would ignore.

How do you find expertise to help with the unusual? Those experts and coaches who deal with the unusual will tell you that they can help you explore the situation and find potential paths, but you will have to make the decision, just like the sea-captains and caravan masters of old. Armed with the right information, you are the person best equipped to decide on the best path to achieve your goals. These experts and coaches are much less likely to have fancy brochures and pre-packaged methodologies: the kinds of issues they address are based upon what can be gleamed about the future, not their past. They are accustomed to focusing on the big picture and the future, so they are likely to talk in terms of “revitalizing”, “innovating”, “increasing profitability” and :”balancing” your cost-reduction efforts with revenue-generation initiatives.

Basically, the experts who are most appropriate for unusual times like these are ones who are as interested in helping you make sense of what is happening in the larger world as they are in helping your focus on the internals of your organization. Remember, in unusual times, it is the external world that has changed; any consultant who claims that your problems will be solved by focusing solely inside your company is demonstrating skilled incompetence.

Industry experts are experts in the usual

What about using experts within your industry trade group to address the unusual? Sad to say, nearly all such experts gained their expertise by focusing on your industry for long periods of time. They know very well where your industry has been and they know where it was heading – before the big shock. Most of their ideas are going to reflect what they have learned from - and find it safe to say within - your industry trade group. The best sources of new ideas are going to be from outside these experts. Look outside your industry – and look to the “young Turks”, the young and impatient few who think they have a better idea. But make your own decision.

Above all, be disciplined in your search. Don’t be swayed by public opinion or the presence of methodologies. Know who you are looking for, don’t deviate from your path in looking for several such experts, and be disciplined enough to make your own decision. Discipline in decision-making is a key leadership skill.


Gary Clayton is a leadership coach who helps CEOs, executives and other leaders work through current challenges, explore possibilities, and find paths to greater success in business and life.

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Categories : Qualities & Skills