The 11th Commandment: Follow, Learn, Adapt

A friend recently posted a lfootprints in desert sandink to a quiz purporting to determine whether the respondent is a better manager or leader. Those in the highest scoring bracket (36-40 points) are awarded “Moses” status and informed:

“Your vision is powerful and persuasive. You have the ability to convince large groups of people to pick up and follow you into the wilderness, and great instincts about where to find the Promised Land.”

The preamble to the quiz maintains that there is no “best” result, though you can’t help feeling that most would be more flattered to view themselves as the prophet Moses than baseball manager, Dusty Baker (10-15 points).

I’m not convinced, though, that striding out in front is all it’s cracked up to be.

Last month I found myself a very grateful follower. I’d been to a wedding in Newcastle upon Tyne and was travelling back, overnight, to Hereford. Just south of Durham the A1 was unexpectedly closed. Almost simultaneously a thick paste-like fog descended to obscure my view; the haphazard application of diversion signage favoured by the Highways Agency added further frisson. I dropped back and put my faith in a pair of cautious rear lights ahead. As long as they keep moving, I reasoned, they can’t have met a pile-up. In little more than an hour I had rejoined the main road where it reopened north of Leeds. The experience was tiring enough, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for my vanguard, no matter how powerful his or her vision.

A few days later, in thankfully more clement conditions, my family and I took a canoe down the river for an afternoon. A mile or so upstream from Hay-on-Wye my 9 year-old son called to the occupants of a canoe ahead of us, challenging them to a race to the “rapids.” I reminded him that there’s more to life than competition, but somehow we were first to arrive at the rocks. At which point we grounded. I clambered into the river and slipped under. Smartarses in wetsuits mocked us from the bank as our “competitors” serenely navigated their passage through the boulders. Once back in the boat I tenderly invited my son to reflect on the virtues of sacrificing the thirst for first on the altar of learn from the leader.

Whether they admit it or not, it’s something that all successful people and organisations do. These survivors enhance their vision by standing on the shoulders of giants and save their skins by leaping from the tails of the reckless. Yet this is often denied by our mythologising of modern leaders. Ponder for instance Elite Daily’s claim that Mark Zuckerberg, “changed the world with just an idea.” No question Zuckerberg’s a leader, but his fortune owes at least as much to his attention to the successes and errors of forerunners, as to his originality. After all Facebook launched in 2005. and Friends Reunited in 1995 and 2000 respectively. Zuckerberg’s “genius” was to widen the constituency of users and to resist short-term returns from subscription in favour of the galactic profits of advertising. It’s a story of adaptive rather than pioneering brilliance.

Maybe first mover advantage does occur. But the wisest leaders follow at a shrewd distance, always learning from what unfolds before them, and poised to grasp the optimum moment to change course and strike out in a new direction. I’m willing to wager that during those 40 years he led his people in circles, even Moses occasionally wished for someone to follow through the wilderness.

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