Leadership lessons from a Wall Street consultant

By Felix Salmon
May 30, 2012

I’ve been spending much more time than usual on Facebook, over the past week — you’d think the company has been in the news, or something like that. And so I found myself this evening clicking on a classic clickbait headline — “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning” — which had been shared approvingly by my ex-boss, and which came with the somewhat respectable logo of the Harvard Business Review.

The article in question isn’t long, but it is pretty much everything you hate about the HBR. It’s written by some consultant who loves to talk about “leadership” a lot, and who loves to use phrases like “platform for talent”. What’s more, he’s ever so keen on focus, and eliminating distractions. Apparently, when you’ve got some dead time while standing in an elevator, the wrong thing to do is to use that time for something productive, like dashing off a quick email. Email, you see, is a distraction from more important things, like, um, working out who else might be in the elevator. Or, single-mindedly trying to win some pointless gong:

After the CEO busted me in the elevator, he told me about the meeting he had just come from. It was a gathering of all the finalists, of which he was one, for the title of Entrepreneur of the Year. This was an important meeting for him — as it was for everyone who aspired to the title (the judges were all in attendance) — and before he entered he had made two explicit decisions: 1. To focus on the meeting itself and 2. Not to check his BlackBerry.

What amazed him was that he was the only one not glued to a mobile device. Were all the other CEOs not interested in the title? Were their businesses so dependent on them that they couldn’t be away for one hour? Is either of those a smart thing to communicate to the judges?

There was only one thing that was most important in that hour and there was only one CEO whose behavior reflected that importance, who knew where to focus and what to ignore. Whether or not he eventually wins the title, he’s already winning the game.

This one story is reasonably impressive in that it inadvertently tells you everything you need to know about the leadership industry. For one thing, the people who are most successful, in this industry, tend to be obscene flatterers: whatever your client does, he does it better than any of his competitors, and he’s “winning the game”. When CEOs ask for advice, what they really want is flattery: they want to be told how brilliant their decisions are, and that the only thing which would make those decisions even more brilliant would be if they were made even more decisively.

And secondly, CEOs will go to extraordinary lengths to be flattered: not only by paying consultants enormous sums of money to tell them how brilliant they are, but also by putting enormous effort into maneuvering to be awarded a profoundly meaningless title like Entrepreneur of the Year. Our CEO, here, could have tried to get something vaguely useful out of the meeting, by trying to learn from the various other entrepreneurs and judges who were there; instead, he treated it as a zero-sum competition, where there could be only one winner.

Such a person laps up stuff like this:

The speed with which information hurtles towards us is unavoidable (and it’s getting worse). But trying to catch it all is counterproductive…

A study of car accidents by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute put cameras in cars to see what happens right before an accident. They found that in 80% of crashes the driver was distracted during the three seconds preceding the incident. In other words, they lost focus — dialed their cell phones, changed the station on the radio, took a bite of a sandwich, maybe checked a text — and didn’t notice that something changed in the world around them. Then they crashed.

The world is changing fast and if we don’t stay focused on the road ahead, resisting the distractions that, while tempting, are, well, distracting, then we increase the chances of a crash.

This being an HBR blog post, and therefore more of a book excerpt than an actual blog post, there’s no link to the study in question. But it comes up pretty easily with a Google search. And guess what:

crashes.tiff

It turns out, if you look at all of the crashes in the survey, just one third of them were associated solely with the “secondary tasks” being talked about here, and only about 40% had secondary tasks as a contributory factor at all. The only way you can get anywhere near 80% is in the fact that 78% of crashes were associated with secondary tasks or non-specific eye glances, or driving-related inattention to the forward driveway (for instance, looking to the side when changing lanes), or drowsiness.

Evidently, what happens when you really focus on your work, when you start every day by making “good time to pause, prioritize, and focus”, what you end up with is stupid exaggerations and errors like saying 80% when the true number, freely available online, is only 40%.

Or maybe what you end up with is a life lived in a bubble of self-affirmation, where the glorious serendipity of Twitter or Facebook — even the occasional link emailed to you by a well-meaning friend — is ruthlessly pruned from your life, so that you can digest only information pre-chewed for you by subordinates and consultants, all of whom are extremely well versed in the art of telling you exactly what you want to hear.

So what does it mean that this self-evidently ignominious blog post, two three years after it was written, is still being passed around the upper echelons of the consultant-sphere, complete with its 270 comments? (“Wow this is incredible story for me . I will do my best to apply this in my everyday life.”) Part of it is that the post seems to have turned into something of an HBR evergreen, a bit like “Six-pack abs! See results in just 9 days!” over at Men’s Health. And that fact, in itself, is telling. HBR’s readers, it seems, are perennially starved for little blog posts telling them that they’re not self-centered enough, and that they should try to cut down on annoying things like paying attention to unexpected things the outside world might send their way.

If you want to be a leadership guru, pay attention. Don’t say anything which requires actual thought: just give your clients permission to do as little as possible, while remaining magnificently untroubled by self-doubt. Then you, too, might end up with lucrative consulting contracts for “Allianz, American Express, Brunswick Group, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, FEI, GE Capital, Merck, Clear Channel, Nike, UNICEF, and many others.” Yeah, I noticed how finance-heavy that list was, too.

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