Why the Best Business Leaders Are Pigheaded and Irrational
I’ve been called "pigheaded" a number of times, and I’ve never taken offense. But until recently, I never looked up the actual definition of pigheaded, which according to Merriam-Webster means “refusing to do what other people want or to change your opinion or the way you do something: very stubborn.” Synonyms for pigheaded include everything from “headstrong” to “opinionated” to “willful.” I’m good with being those things when necessary, especially when considering the opposites of pigheaded: “acquiescent, compliant, pliable, relenting, and yielding.”
My only regrets in my business career come from when I wasn’t pigheaded enough. I think back to situations where I went in thinking everyone was smarter than I was, so I dialed it back a bit instead of pushing harder. At Kodak, for instance, I should’ve fought tooth and nail to take the company private. I’m not sure other people were ready to do that or the other things needed to turn around the company, but honestly, I wasn’t pigheaded enough to do the things I needed to do.
After that, I pushed—a lot. I pushed hard to have a business book bestseller as a first-time author. I pushed hard to land my TV show. I pushed hard to create my C-Suite Network, which I would now like to be the biggest business network in the world.
Call me stupidly obstinate, but shooting for the possible is easy. Forget about being proud of picking the low-hanging fruit. I want to know what I have to do to make my company and me bigger, because it isn’t only about me. It's about my family and the people who count on me in business and beyond. I need my team to be a little pigheaded, too, not only to push themselves but also to stand up to me when they think things are off. Otherwise I'll keep moving in too many directions, spending my time trying to persuade them to do my bidding or forcing my will on them with no checks and balances.
Wouldn’t it be great to be part of a company with people making things happen and having fun doing it? Of course it would. Are you willing to push people to do what it takes to think and act that way?
I'm always trying to move people one way or another. Love me or hate me, just get off the fence and move. When things start to move, I expect my people to push back and push me harder. After all, I’m not right all the time. I believe I am, but if my people can push and question me and help me find the answers, then we can do it bigger and better or pursue new directions that we align around as a team.
So why do leaders need to be so pigheaded? Why push so hard? The sad truth is sometimes people just want to do what they’re doing and don’t want to work as hard as they need to get the job done. The reason it’s called work is that it’s hard—really hard. I serve on a lot of boards and work with a lot of companies. Without fail, those that are really moving are doing the work that needs to be done together in the moment, 80 to 100 hours a week, barely sleeping.
Yet being pigheaded is often not enough on its own to move a team.
Peter Friedman, chairman and CEO of LiveWorld, a social media solutions company, started and ran Apple’s first internet services division—creating and managing what today we call social networks. Apple used that community for marketing, customer support, and research market learning online, and it spawned companies like AOL and Salon. Of course, Apple embraced such forward thinking out of the gate, as it always sees the future before others, right? Wrong.
In 1994, when Friedman presented his idea to the executive staff at Apple, he said, “For now, this will be used by some Mac and PC owners, but eventually online communities will be much, much bigger than personal computers. They will be in phones, TVs, cars, and devices we haven’t thought of yet. Everyone will use them in all aspects of their lives." As Friedman explains, "The room was quiet except for some grunting. I turned around to see they were covering their mouths because they were laughing at me. They’re not laughing now.”
Friedman's story is a perfect illustration of why leaders constantly need to find ways to push things to the edge of (but not off) the table. Even the most groundbreaking companies can get stuck and fail to see possibilities in the preposterous, because success is comfortable and often too connected to the past. As a result, it can be blinding.
Friedman pushed Apple to see future possibilities in an experimental project wrapped around community websites and kept pushing to create that internet services division in the nascent days of the web. Big thinkers know that’s exactly when you must push harder and farther. We know the edge of the table is farther along than anyone else in the room. Like Friedman, we keep pushing through the laughter behind our backs. Personally, I prefer people to laugh in my face. That way I can see everyone I need to wave at as I pass them by doing what Friedman did: employing a little “irrational leadership,” swinging the pendulum way out there, stressing the system in such a way your people move faster and harder than they have before.
Greg Lucier, CEO of Life Technologies, introduced me to the term “irrational leadership” at a talk I attended, and I remember thinking at the time, “What do you mean irrational? If anything, you want to be sane and rational in the C-Suite.” Then I realized, of course you don’t. As Lucier noted, you have to be so far out there sometimes to pull people along to where you want them to go. You know they’ll never be as irrational as you or as adamant about where you’re going, so you put the goal way out there, even though people may see you as irrational. I'd said for years that leaders needed to create tension and results by pushing farther and farther to move the rest of their team in that direction. Now I had a name for it.