SCIENCE OF BUILDING LEADERS
By ROSHAN THIRAN
ONCE a monkey has gotten hold of food in its hand, it is close to impossible to get the primate to let it go. And this makes trapping it easy for monkey catchers.
In Malaysia, a villager developed the ingenious “Monkey Trap” by burying a coconut and drilling a narrow hole big enough for a monkey’s hand to go through. He would place pieces of fruit, nuts or meat on skewers in the coconut. The odour and smell of the treats attracts monkeys to reach into the narrow opening and grab hold of the treats. As the monkey attempts to extract the treats, it finds that its fistful of food will not fit through the narrow opening.
The monkey will scream in frustration as he continues to hold on to his food and attempts to remove his hand from the coconut. The villager comes over and drops a net over the monkey. Even though the monkey sees the villager approaching, so intent is it on keeping the food that it grips the morsels even tighter and tries even harder to dislodge its fist.
Nothing is keeping that monkey captive except the force of its own attachment. All it has to do to escape is let go of the food. But so strong is the force of greed that it is a rare monkey which can let go.
Aren’t many business leaders just like monkeys? We may laugh at the monkey for its stupidity but every day we see similar foolishness displayed by many business leaders who struggle with letting go. Like monkeys, many leaders fail when they hold on too tightly to something that leads them astray.
We simply can’t let go of products, services and practices that worked in the past which contribute little today but require significant amounts of our time and attention. Or we struggle to let go of our ego and pride. And some business leaders simply can’t let go of their business and stay on in their roles way past their expiry date.
But the phenomenon is not limited to business leaders. Many people are traumatically bonded and cling on to bad relationships even though they know better. Or we can’t let go of a bad habit. Worse still, many hold on to old beliefs and dogma like “if it’s not broken, why fix it” and end up missing the boat when changes need to be made. Why is this?
In the case of the monkey, greed is the key reason. Greed and avarice are why executives fail to let go. And greed leads to fear.
Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi wrote: “He who considers wealth a good thing can never bear to give up his income; he who considers eminence a good thing can never bear to give up his fame. He who has a taste for power can never bear to hand over authority to others. Holding tight to these things, such men shiver with fear; should they let them go, they would pine in sorrow.”
While greed for food holds the monkey back, what holds us back? Is it our ego, power, pride or greed?
Successful business leaders struggle with letting go of their products and services that worked previously because they fear the unknown. The fear of losing the past outweighs the gain of the future. Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist teacher, said: “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
They believe if they keep going the same way, even though it may be painful now, somehow life will return to the excesses of before in the future. Albert Einstein rebuts this belief: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Each of us naturally wants to maintain status quo, sticking to the safe and comfortable. According to Edward Miller, dean of John Hopkins medical school, people won’t change even if their lives depended on it. He studied people two years after their coronary artery bypass grafting and found 90% of them had not changed their lifestyle even though they knew they could die. They just could not change their lifestyle for whatever reason.
CEOs are supposedly the prime change agents for their companies but they are often most resistant to change.
When Louis Gerstner took over as CEO of IBM, he started by sticking to the McKinsey routine that had worked for him throughout his career – analysis paralysis and strategy. He thought he could revive the company through drills such as selling assets and cost cutting which were his comfort zones. But he was wrong and to his credit, he changed his consultant approach to a more cultural transformative one, thereby enabling IBM’s revival.
But most leaders resist change and are crippled by excuses to retain status quo. If you walk into any business and hear the following excuses, you are in a business where there are a lot of monkeys who just can’t let go:
· We’ve never done it before and it’s not possible.
· We/another company/person tried it before and it won’t work here. Our company is different.
· We’ve been doing it this way for the past 50 years.
· Why change – it’s working OK. Everything is fine here.
· Management will hate it. This company is not ready for it.
· It needs further investigation and more thought.
· Our competitors are not doing it. Why should we?
· We don’t have the money/resources/assets to do this.
· The union will scream. It’s too much trouble to change.
· Customers won’t buy it. It’s too radical a change
Ego is responsible for the majority of business failures. Disney, Wang Laboratories and even General Motors’ slide from glory was due to leadership ego. Even celebrity CEOs are not immune to ego issues. Steve Jobs was kicked out of the company he founded because of ego issues.
A personal example while I worked at GE is of the legendary Jack Welch, whose refusal to part with Montgomery Ward, a trouble departmental store that came to GE looking for an infusion of US$100mil to reverse the retailer’s fortunes. It wasn’t enough and the next year it came back and asked for more.
GE, faced with losing its original investment, gave the firm the additional money and then proceeded to give more the next year and the following years. To protect an initial US$100mil investment, GE eventually wasted billions. Just like the monkey who couldn’t let go, the world’s greatest CEO couldn’t let go of a black hole and later admitted it was ego that stood in the way.
Nelson Mandela quit as president of South Africa after his first term a legend. Some leaders can’t let go of their businesses and stay in the job way past their expiry date, causing the business or country to be ruined in the process.
It is hard to identify even one single big business success that was achieved by following conventional wisdom. Yet many still rely on it daily.
A secretary working part-time while studying at a university in the US refused to learn the computer and only used the typewriter. She was typing 300 words a minute and believed if she kept improving her speed, her job was safe. Whilst everything around her told her to embrace the computer, her inner belief said otherwise. A year later, they fired her and replaced her with someone who typed 80 words a minute but could use the computer.
The newspaper industry globally is in decline and many blame the advent of the Internet to this decline. But researchers Michael Moore and Sean Paul Kelley believe that it is greed and the reliance on outdated wisdom that has seen the print media’s decline.
Each of us have beliefs and conventional thinking stifling our progress. Take time and re-examine your beliefs and remove and replace the ones that don’t work. Businesses need to do this often too.
In life, there are many things that we have to learn to let go. We have to let go of situations, things, memories, attachment to people and even ourselves. It can be very painful when it’s time to let go.
Letting go is similar to crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward. Letting go can be one of the scariest experiences in your life but only by boldly taking a leap of faith into the unknown can you truly be the leader you were meant to be.
So, this weekend, why not reflect and learn to “let go” of something that is holding you back from greatness. Remember, every exit is an entry to somewhere else.
Think of it this way: you’re on a hiking trip and along the way you keep picking up heavy objects, things that don’t really help you get up the hill. After a while, these objects begin to slow you down and unless you get rid of them, you’ll never complete your trip. So, let them go.
Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise passionate about transforming the nation through leadership development. For more information on leadership programmes for your organisation, call 012-3291968 or login to www.leaderonomics.com.
Source: The Star