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Why the best business leaders are pigheaded and irrational

Find out why leaders need to find ways to "push things to the edge of the table."
By Jeffrey Hayzlett |


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.”


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.



Push farther 

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.



Irrational leadership

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.



Copyright © 2015 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been done by the editor.


Photos from Flickr (Shirin Kavin and Penn State)

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