A business lesson—and especially a life lesson—that I picked up from my rock & roll days is to maintain some skepticism towards leadership and authority. Especially when that authority appears to be unquestioned.
Bob Dylan said not to follow leaders. John Lennon said not to follow Dylan. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong said we’re not meant to follow anybody and that we should even “revolt against the honor to obey.” Strong stuff. It’s too bad this sentiment has been endlessly trivialized on bumper stickers and lapel pins, because deference to hierarchy, obeisance to authority, uncritical acceptance of orthodoxy (economic, scientific, religious, etc.), and lack of critical thinking in general are among the most dangerous habits on ample display these days.
The business world is hardly exempt from this. If you work for a company you may be led to believe in the infallibility of your company’s leaders—or in the unexamined goodness of your company’s business model, practices, culture, etc. (If you’re self-employed, you can substitute industry or field for company.) If you worked for a large investment bank in the middle of the last decade you probably believed in the bounteous benefits of financial “innovations” like unregulated credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other derivatives.
Imagine the economic misery the world would have been spared since 2008 if even a handful of business leaders had challenged the accepted wisdom of Wall Street and had spoken out—loudly—against the reckless practices that were continually defended by financial authorities and experts.
Of course it’s difficult to maintain objectivity when you’re surrounded by people in your community who share the same assumptions—which hardens into orthodoxy. Not just in financial services. When I consulted in the energy industry everyone seemed to assume that all environmentalists were ill-informed wackaloons, whose warnings could be ignored (including those concerning oil spills). And all environmentalists seemed to assume that all energy companies were run by avaricious, rapacious cartoon characters, who should never be trusted.
The lesson? Question assumptions. And take everything with a grain of sea salt. Including this blog.
Sometimes bumper stickers give good advice.
(To be continued in the month—and years—ahead.)