Is it possible in the year of our Lord 2012 that leadership still isn’t well understood? In 2012, despite business journalism’s fetishization of Steve Jobs, the most successful leader ever, whose apotheosis was Walter Isaacson’s doorstop, Steve Jobs, a biography of the half-Syrian, bearded man who built the world’s most valuable company, brick by brick, and found himself, like an earlier CEO of sorts, with legions of devoted apostles, some powerful enemies, and an inextinguishable legend? Is it possible, despite the endless streams of management self-help articles burbling out of Fast Company, Inc., Harvard Business Review, Businessweek, Fortune and the blogs of droves of self-appointed leadership gurus, we need more advice? And is it possible despite the emails – so many emails, Jesus wept – those emails that aggregate all this content using algorithms and intern labor, and slice it up so that the middle manager in Minnesota and the lawyer in Los Angeles and the new media marketer in New York are all .0058% more likely to click through to a relevant article? Is it possible, really possible, the answer to our prayers is another book on leadership?
It is, thinks Clay Christensen. Business folks – the unquenchable consumers of all that content – have been taking the paradoxes of leadership, because they are so familiar, for granted. When they do this, they ruin their companies and then they ruin their lives. Like that subway step everyone tripped over for years without noticing, they take for granted that the well-worn grooves on our society’s pathways are the right ones to be in. They don’t watch the road to see when a turn they are on is about to become rutted, or when they might hit mud and tip over. They feel, like the pioneers, safe in a wagon train, but then something goes wrong, and they are very alone, very fast. They need the wisdom of a pioneer who has crossed the valley, and studied the path.
Paradox one: Leading is usually about getting people to go someplace difficult and new, even if (or precisely because) they’re perfectly comfortable and prosperous where they are right now.
Paradox two: A leader can’t just motivate people to change, she has to persuade them to actually take the journey, and care about its success or failure.
Paradox three: Even if a leader succeeds, there’s no guarantee she will get any credit, or gratitude for the services rendered. Except for the millions of dollars in compensation some business leaders make, the magazine cover stories and books written about them, the hobnobbing with President Obama, being a leader can be the most thankless of tasks. Of course, if you do it wrong, you get shown the door.
Still. Celebrity, money, power – hard to shed a tear, it’s true. But pay attention, for a moment, before we get to the personal, to the failures of business leadership. The landscape is littered with the carrion of companies that blew it; high fliers that flamed out. If leadership can be occasionally rewarding, it is far more often the case that business leaders, even ones who have been coronated by adoring customers and media, end up, over the long haul, stumbling and failing. To put it in more fruitful terms: For every Apple, there is a Blackberry.
Yet to Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, consultant, investor, onetime failed CEO, the problems of leadership are not inscrutable. They are very scrutable. They just have to be worked through a sound theory. Christensen, 60, is most famously the author of business school bible The Innovator’s Dilemma, a 1997 tract that grew out of his HBS doctoral thesis, about the disk drive industry. His work has appeared in or been the subject of scores of articles in all the above-named publications, but there is something different about it. It’s a something that grants him the ear and attention of some of the world’s most powerful CEOs. Christensen excels at delivering to them a very special kind of bad news, which would be unwelcome but for his steady, deep tone, gentle nature, and unshakeable conviction that his findings offer a path to corporate salvation, no matter how fraught it is with trials and temptation. Christensen tells his chosen people that if they want to survive they must lead, and they have to have faith in the theory that shows the way. He tells them that the moment of greatest danger comes when they stand at the pinnacle of their industry. Upstarts are coming for their customers. Soon, they’ll be broke. His theories are familiar to business journalism junkies, startup founders, and those powerful CEOs. Venture capitalists and startup founders in Silicon Valley and beyond have found religion in the concept of disruptive innovation that he refined.
Using spare black and white charts, which are his favorite visualization tools, Christensen shows how well-managed, profitable companies can become abject failures in a breathtakingly short time by doing all the right things: They refine their existing products to be better and better. They cater to their best, biggest customers. And they try to grow their profit margins with every passing quarter. But it turns out the path they’re on is something like C.S. Lewis’s gently sloping road to Hell. Christensen sees Bethlehem Steel go bankrupt just a couple years after a glowing Wall Street Journal profile about its genius CEO. He sees the second largest computer company in the world, DEC in the 1970’s, reduced to irrelevance in less than a decade. He observes the tragi-comic rise and fall of Enron. And he studies those disk drive companies, which he calls the “fruit flies” of the technology industry, as they are born, evolve, succeed, and die by the dozen, in no time at all. What the loser companies and many others all missed was, he believes, the impact of disruptive technologies on their business.