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The boss must ‘walk in stupid’ – every day!

Aug 31, 2007 Business Daily, Leadership

“It’s the hardest thing to do as a leader, but it’s the most important thing. Whatever day it is, something in the world changed overnight, and you better figure out what it is and what it means. You have to forget what you just did and what you just learned. You have to walk in stupid every day.”

Dan Wieden, CEO Wieden + Kennedy

Dan Wieden is a legend in the advertising world. W + K is one of the world’s most distinguished agencies, and Wieden himself authored the famous “Just Do it” tagline for his long-time client, Nike. It employs 600 people and bills a billion dollars annually.

Wieden’s startling ‘walk in stupid’ line is quoted in the 2006 business best-seller, Mavericks at Work, by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre. That is itself an excellent book which will no doubt be featured in this column many times.

Wieden could be forgiven for entertaining a touch of intellectual arrogance, given his record of success. But, as the Mavericks authors point out, when they visited W + K they found the exact opposite. They found a leader who wants to “keep challenging the organization, and himself, to seek out unexpected ideas, outside influences, and new perspectives on old problems.”

Taylor and LaBarre point out that people like Wieden appreciate the power of the inexperience curve – the idea that the more you do something, the more important it is to challenge the assumptions and habits that built your success so as to generate a wave of innovations to build the future. At W + K, this means consciously designing an architecture of participation that opens the agency to outside thinking.

Say what? Throw out all the assumptions that have made you successful, and wilfully make yourself stupid all over again? In Kenya, our leaders tend to do the precise opposite: they cultivate a know-it-all air, and stake everything on the success formulae of yesteryear. It’s rare to find a boss humble enough to admit he doesn’t get it, and wants to learn. And it isn’t just the boss’s ego at fault: underlings seem to want to be led by a larger-than-life, all-knowing, supremely confident leader. Any sign of hesitation might be fatal.

This is a terrible shame. Mavericks tells us that there is a common trait in mould-breaking executives: they combine personal confidence with intellectual humility. They do not hide their aggressive goals or competitive fire. But they don’t confuse ambition with omniscience. As they put it: “You can think big without having to think of everything yourself.”

In today’s and tomorrow’s business world, the character of leadership is changing. It’s no longer useful to be the hard-boiled conviction leader of yore. The thing that’s scarce in most organisations these days is talent. As a leader, you have to ask yourself: “Am I the kind of person with whom other smart people want to work and contribute ideas? Can I demonstrate personal strength, even charisma, along with intellectual humility?” Your strength as a leader will come from the quality of people you can sustain in your top team – and the best people no longer want to work with an overbearing, overweening egomaniac.

If you want to lead people in this new world of business, get wise. Walk in stupid, every day. The humility will help you win.

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