Real Leaders

Why it’s Hard to Not Act Like an Idiot

Nearly every company I do consulting for these days have something in common… and it’s not good. It’s called Project Failure. Virtually everywhere I go important strategic projects are failing to be delivered on budget or on time. This is not a trivial problem. Failing to achieve vital goals puts companies’ at risk and demoralizes employees.

Whenever organizations suffer chronic failure it brings up questions.

Are the right people in charge? Are the people in charge listening to the right people? Maybe not. That’s because research from Zenger Folkman confirms that people who are most likely to understand the time, money and resources necessary to accomplishing goals are usually not the people in charge. In fact they’re most often members of a group whose voices go unheard… women managers. You heard me. We live in a complex world. Most of the important things that happen to us are beyond our control. Yet, our brains are wired to make things seem simple and in our control. This helps us keep our worries in embers rather than inflame our brains with the bonfire of uncertainty.

One thing psychological research is clear on is that human beings hate uncertainty. 

We hate it so much that the most common stupid thinking trick we play on ourselves is called confirmation bias. This means that we pay attention to and even seek out any evidence that confirms our current prejudices. Then we create mental models of cause and effect which deceives us into believing we know more than we do. Leaders who have a Hard Power mindset are the most susceptible to self-deception… or what I call acting like idiots. Here is why.

The Hard Power mindset focuses on control.

This makes a dictator model of leadership seem logical and attractive. This creates high decision-making efficiency and accountability. Hard Power political leaders can quickly become ruthless. People who don’t execute their wishes get executed. Today we see lots of politicians using Hard Power messages to stir people up. You know… when anything is happening that we don’t like, bomb the hell out of someone.

Many people find this is an attractive idea. It’s simple and we like simplicity. Hard Power language confirms a make-believe world where we can force people to do what we want them to do. That of course is the thinking of idiots. Unfortunately it’s not that different in business. Uncertainty is viewed as a weakness. Goals must be set. Big, hairy, audacious goals are especially favored because on the off chance they are achieved the leader is celebrated as a hero. My experience with Hard Power is leaders who are constantly setting “stretch” goals and driving their teams to “up their game” is that they mistakenly attribute success to all-out, relentless effort. This feeds into their confirmation bias.

It makes leadership seem very simple. Set goals, get in people’s faces, intimidate people through rewards and punishment and keep track of today’s score. Whatever… that’s not leadership. That’s dictatorship.

So let’s get to real leadership.

Leadership that accomplishes worthwhile goals. Goals that make the quality of human life better. My experience is that wise leadership sets meaningful goals based on a realistic use of the time, resources and talent needed to achieve those goals. Necessary time, resources and talent are chronically underestimated by Hard Power, goal-mad leaders. Here are some dos and don’ts for Hard Power leaders (who are usually men) and Soft Power leaders (who are often women).  These are the rules for people who are serious about success and are committed to the idea that better things happen when men and women leaders work together.

For men (or Hard Power women): Do:

Do what you mother taught you about being polite.  When you’re setting goals ask the women on your team (or women who are one or two levels deeper) what it would take for the organization to execute and successfully achieve your goals. Always remember, their brains are designed to think more holistically. They’re much more likely to see un-intended consequences, and the full scope of effort needed to be successful.  So…ask…listen…acknowledge. That’s it.  Ask for specific input. Listen with both ears. Then acknowledge the content of the message that is presented and ask more questions. That behavior creates engagement. Often what is said may seem like a wet blanket. Reframe the message.

Your bias for action may blind you to the risks and difficulties that stand in your way.

This is foolish. Before you start on any long car trip you need to have a full tank of gas and a clear understanding of the distance your car can go before you need another fill-up. Doesn’t matter how fast you drive if you run out of gas before you reach your destination.


Don’t dismiss the wisdom of women’s assessments of what it will take to succeed because your mental model of women is that they are overly cautious, “fraidy-cats.” When we were teenagers most of our mothers were telling us to slow down while our fathers may have been winking.  Our mothers were right…wearing seat belts and driving the speed limit is always a better choice if living a long life is a goal.

For women leaders (or Soft Power males): Do:

Do master the behavior of positive pro-activity. This is accomplished by framing you’re prudent wisdom in the context of the strategic objectives of the enterprise. Powerfully communicate your commitment to achieving relevant, strategic goals. Never use the phrase “yes…but…” Rather, restate the importance of a goal and your commitment to achieve it by considering all the critical details including the unstated and often unmeasurable roadblocks. These are the inconvenient truths that linear brains ignore. Most importantly, suggest solutions and progressive steps that should be taken to ensure success. Assert yourself calmly and drive for progress.


Don’t engage in hand-wringing, complaining or passive aggressive blaming. Don’t nag others about your concerns. All those behaviors play into female stereotypes that reduce your influence and confirm the prejudices of linear thinking Hard Power idiots. Let me be clear.  I have coached many male, Hard Power leaders who are exceptionally effective. The reason is they don’t act like idiots. They recognize their blind spots and biases and surround themselves with a diversity of strong leaders who are unafraid to express their opinions.

There is only one way to foster the candid expression of different viewpoints…it is to listen with an open mind. This is how great leaders vaccinate themselves from thinking viruses caused by a desire to succeed without understanding the sustained investments in time, processes, resources and talent necessary to do amazing things. To be vivid, most of the time leaders go to war or terrorists blow themselves up it is because of the blood-lust to impose their will. Their emotional vision of defeating their enemies leads them to ignore the risks of oversimplifying complexity.

I often think of the example of William Wallace, the hero of Braveheart. He made a great speech and then led his raw army into a gruesome slaughter. I am sure if he’d consulted the wives and mothers of his untrained warriors they would’ve proposed a long-term strategy designed to minimize casualties and maximize results. I just want to point out that women’s brains are wired for complexity. It is this wiring that makes Soft Power very powerful.

Wise leaders build executive teams that integrate Hard and Soft Power to help large groups of people, from corporations to nations, achieve sustained greatness.

Wisdom is very rare. Our world needs lots more of it… be wise.

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