How is Your "Folly Detector"?
I've been wrestling for a while about how to post this. I wanted to say something about wisdom, particularly "business" wisdom, but didn't know how to explain it without sounding "churchy", so here it goes with an alternative spin...
One gift that I have and that I have been developing over the last 25 years as a business leader is what I call a "Folly Detector". It's not a "BS" detector, as BS is pretty obvious to anyone who is been around it, even for just a little while. A question or two exposes BS for what it truly is. [Thanks to Christian Mayaud at Sacred Cow Dung for reminding me of the "BS Generator" website.]
Wisdom is the experience of knowing what TO DO in a given situation. "Folly" is a subtle, tempting, diametrically-poled opposite, and is usually the state of doing nothing, or the state of doing the same thing you've been doing.
"Folly" is very hard to detect, and many, even most businesses and businesspeople, engage in a perpetual existence of it. You never hear people say, "What is the foolish thing to do, I don't want to do that!." Or even more rare, "Is what we are doing foolish?" We seem to get on a path and then stick to it, no matter what the consequences. And that is a real shame!
Merriam-Webster defines "folly" as follows:
1 : lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight
2 a : criminally or tragically foolish actions or conduct
b obsolete :
EVIL, WICKEDNESS; especially : lewd behavior
3 : a foolish act or idea
4 : an excessively costly or unprofitable undertaking
5 : an often extravagant picturesque building erected to suit a fanciful taste
Many great leaders and executives have highly tuned "folly detectors", some do not. I think it is a gift, that, finely tuned, can be used to build great companies and successfully navigate difficult waters. It's a genuine feeling in the gut, perhaps like a woman's intuition, that may seem to the ungifted as "magic", or even arrogance or presumption.
Having a finely-tuned "folly detector" saves you your most valued resource: time. An executive's (especially the chief executive's) time is the most valuable resource a company has.
The problem with "folly", is that it seems completely natural to follow. Folly is actually the opposite of wisdom, which by its very nature, takes years of actual experience to develop. Folly, on the other hand, is something we all get and have right away, before taking a single step into the business world.
Have you ever wondered why companies are not run like a democracy? One employee, one vote. Does that sound good to you? What would you vote for? A longer lunch break, 4 weeks vacation, guaranteed pensions for all?
Even in the board room, directors sometimes "vote" on important matters, and they should. But running a business is not a beauty contest, and the chief executive is not out to win it. I've seen lots of "fools" on boards, and sometimes they are in the majority.
Many executives fall into success. They got into or started a business just at the right time and they were at the right place and rode into success on their company's back. Usually it was "market forces" that drove those companies to success, not performance by individuals or even individual companies. I'm reminded of the thousands of ISPs that were acquired in the 1990's by public companies with big bucks. There are thousands of guys walking around with millions of dollars, not because they were wise, or had good "folly detectors"; most of them were just blessed by serendipity.
But in the long run, great chief executives and other great leaders need to have and be "folly detectors".
Successful "folly detection":
1) Warns you in advance to avoid a bad path
2) Warns you when you are already on a bad path
3) Warns you that you *might* be on a bad path
4) Warns you that you might want to pursue another path
5) Warns you when the path you are on shifts while you are on it (you are now heading in a bad direction)
6) Advises you on what to do when you discover you are on a bad path
Now, I have as positive an attitude as anyone I know, and I have incredible faith and favor, both in God and in men. But a positive attitude will NOT overcome folly, no matter how positive you are!
Many business people, board members, and VCs, are just too proud to admit they are on a bad path, or just don't know they are on one. I saw lots of Internet companies sticking to their unachievable business plan (the path) after the Internet market meltdown. FOLLY DETECTED! And what did many of those firms do? They fired the founding team and tried to hire "Meg Whitman" (of Ebay) or some other "brand name" CEO. FOLLY DETECTED AGAIN! You would have to assume that it must have been the collective founders' fault for the Internet meltdown, given all of the extricated founders around the country.
I think it costs about $25 million to develop an executive with a honed "folly detector". That's at least how much mine has cost to develop. It takes hundreds of personal hirings, scores of personal firings, dozens of million dollar deals and lots of partnerships. It takes lots of personal interaction with financiers, partners, vendors, industry analysts, employees, and yes, even bloggers.
A word to the wise is sufficient.