Real Leaders

Statistical Poison in Leadership

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

“Statistics provides an obsessional defense against the terror of choosing.” (L.J. Neilson MD). A distribution of probabilities is enormously useful in scientific exploration, in narrowing options, and sometimes in discarding unpromising paths. In leadership, however, it can be fatal. Leading an organization, by definition, includes making choices in the face of uncertainty. Uncertainty means that failure is an option, hence the “terror”. In the face of the terror of choice, winning leaders focus on improving the odds of success through preparation, analysis, etc.

This focus is on the path, not the target. Successful leaders recruit information from many sources, including soft judgments by others. In these big choices, the gut still matters. Nowhere in this calculus is a probability of success or failure. It’s interesting, but not useful, except to avoid absurd risk. The target is chosen because it seems possible, with a payoff that justifies the investment. Using statistics to set targets pulls toward the median, or mediocre (same root).

Venture Capital guru Ben Horowitz (pictured above), in his book The Hard Thing about Hard Things, observes that the terror of choice can’t prevent a leader from choosing, if he seeks success. And probabilities won’t lead to a better choice. Instead, relentless focus on the target is the most likely path to success. Or, there is no easy way to be a successful leader. Shortcuts don’t cut it.


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