Good leaders don’t follow the crowd

Josie Gibson Collaboration, Complexity, Leadership, Purpose

‘To find yourself, think for yourself.’  Socrates

Lemmings suffer from a classic reputation issue. In 1958, Walt Disney’s controversial interpretation of a natural phenomenon in White Wilderness immortalised the lemming ‘suicide plunge’.

In fact, the small rodents don’t commit mass suicide; their populations fluctuate wildly and when numbers are high, they migrate in groups as a natural population leveller.

“The cliff-death-plunge sequence was done by herding the lemmings over a small cliff into a river,” explains scientist Dr Karl Kruszenicki. “It’s easy to understand why the filmmakers did this – wild animals are notoriously unco-operative, and a migration-of-doom followed by a cliff-of-death sequence is far more dramatic to show than the lemmings’ self-implemented population-density management plan.”

Regardless, the lemming suicide myth became fixed in fact as well as celluloid. Chasing each other over a cliff to certain death has become a handy metaphor for unthinking, crowd-driven behaviour.

The practice of following even when the evidence points a radically different way – not questioning ‘accepted wisdom’ – remains all too common.

This might reflect many people’s yearning for a simple life in the face of increasing complexity. It might also signal a deep fear and confusion about how to cope with the fast-changing, uncertain times in which we find ourselves.

Certainty, if ever it worked, has been debunked as an illusion. Poor workforce engagement, lagging productivity and sluggish innovation levels are signs that current approaches are failing. As consultant Martin Reeves and colleagues found, corporations “now die, on average, at a younger age than their employees”.

Leadership models that might have worked in the industrial era haven’t translated comfortably to a complex, highly fragmented world.

As strident leadership industry critic Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer writes in the McKinsey Quarterly, “leaders aren’t doing a good job for themselves or their workplaces, and things don’t seem to be improving”. Leadership, he says, has been framed in moral terms that oversimplify the real complexity of the dilemmas and choices leaders face. In reality there’s no template to deal with unknown unknowns.

“Some of the most successful and admired leaders – for example, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy – were above all pragmatists, willing to do what was necessary to achieve important objectives,” Pfeffer says. “As such, each of them (and many other renowned leaders) changed their positions on decisions and behaved inconsistently.”

So, how to pull away from the cliff’s edge and head with confidence into the complex maze of emerging opportunities?

According to leadership author Simon Sinek, most people know the ‘what’ and some the ‘how’, but “very, very few organisations or people know why they do what they do… Why do you get out of bed in the morning, and why should anyone care?”

A deep understanding of why you’re doing it – whatever ‘it’ is – communicates far more than words. “We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves,” Sinek adds. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.