It's Swing Time
There is no epithet deficit when it comes to describing today's crisis of business leadership: greedy, unethical, and myopic appear regularly on the adjectival hot list. Nonetheless, there's one more term I'd like to toss into the vernacular swirl: bipolar. More specifically, bipolar management disorder -- a serious though unrecognized condition. (Pfizer hasn't gotten its hands on it yet, but I'm sure it's on its list after adult ADD.)
A very smart Wall Street friend of mine snapped the reality of the crazily oscillating nature of American business into focus for me. He said that he's far from wise enough to predict which way the market is going but one thing he can be sure of is that there is going to be an inevitable overcorrection -- either nutty optimism or doomed pessimism, wild embrace or radioactive abandonment. The way he makes money is simply to wait for the mood swing to lurch one way and then invest in the other direction.
The forces behind our bipolar culture are no big surprise. Politics and the media have been transformed into a landscape of angry extremes and confrontation, whether it be exaggerated partisanship or a generally sensationalist ethos. We've grown accustomed to conceptual slap-downs. One day Ahmed Chalabi is the future of a democratic Iraq, the next he is an enemy of freedom. One morning pasta is the healthiest way to eat, the next we are No Carb Country. One moment Wal-Mart is an icon of entrepreneurship and innovation, the next it is a predatory capitalist.
In HR, we go from M.B.A.'s being essential to building a world-class organization, to M.B.A.'s as a plague of the overeducated and underexperienced. In marketing, we've bounced from a conviction that TV advertising is the only way to build a mass brand, to an equally strong dogma that argues TV is finished -- slayed by the Internet and TiVo -- and the only way to build name recognition is to embed your brand in a video game, along with other forms of guerrilla marketing.
We've seen intranets celebrated as the new way to link organizations and create a culture, to intranets as an IT money pit. We've seen the pendulum lurch from R&D as too critical to a company's future to outsource, to establishing multiple strategic relationships as the best way to assure a pipeline of innovation. We've gone from celebrating charismatic, visionary leadership to worshipping humble efficiency.
On a less macro level, I've seen CEOs change strategic direction over a weekend -- and not even a long holiday one -- based on a single article they read, or a cocktail party comment, or because they confused an inability to execute with a bad strategy.
In this environment, why would anyone hold on to a management approach for a second longer than necessary? Especially when you never really believed in the philosophy du jour in the first place -- it was a convenient, low-flying silver bullet. And besides, being left holding an unfashionable strategic bag is far more blemishing than admitting you've been wrong all along and then adopting the exact opposite business position.
Because this overreactivity is so predictable, business leaders who are alert to its manifestations can find opportunities in the voids and between the poles. Virtually every industry has had its temporary ghost towns -- Pasta Gulch, Mainframe Corners, Full Service Broker City. Abandoned today, thriving tomorrow. To see the opportunities, you need to stand above the chaos. And it's not just a matter of being contrarian. It's more about what we learned back in Philosophy 101 when Hegel was invoked: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
Wise management needs to be able to create strategy and direction out of fusing opposites, rather than management by whiplash. Is this a fancy way of saying chart a middle ground? Not really. The middle ground is boring; it gutlessly avoids grappling with outlying ideas. The challenge is to create something new out of the best of different genres.
All the obituaries of Ray Charles celebrated the way he took gospel, jazz, R&B, and country and made them musically cohabitate. Don't reject, reapply. Business leaders would be well served to stop listening to the pundits for a while and start downloading Ray onto their iPods.
Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited Inc., a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.