Why Great Leaders Are Unreasonable

Management is meant to be rational and reasonable. In practice, though, anyone who has been in an organisation and been capable of fogging a mirror knows that this is untrue.

Organisations are full of people. Where there are people, there are politics, ego, competition, conflict and crises. And that is on a good day.

The problem of reasonable management became clear when I was working for a global electronics company. Its basic problem was simple: it was going bust. In an act of desperation, the company president ordered a 20 per cent reduction in headcount and working capital across every division.

Immediately, all the excuses started rolling in:

  • We have already cut our costs, so we cannot cut any more.
  • We already have best-in-class benchmark costs versus competition, so we cannot cut any more.
  • We are growing at 20 per cent a year -- we cannot cut and grow at the same time.
Any reasonable manager would have listened and adjusted the targets. And all the reasonable managers would now be unemployed, having worked for a very reasonable, but bankrupt business.

The president realised this, and clarified his early demand of the division leaders: "Get me the 20 per cent or you will be part of the 20 per cent".

The 20 per cent was delivered and the company survived.

Most great leaders are not reasonable, or even very nice, people. If Alexander the Great had been reasonable, he would have realised that he ruled a tin pot state on the edge of civilisation. Being unreasonable, he conquered the entire civilised world by the age of 30. To this day, we remember Alexander the Great. No-one remembers his cousin, Alexander the Reasonable.

In the managerial world it pays to be selectively unreasonable. Managers who are always unreasonable about everything are just a pain in the posterior and quickly lose friends and allies.

But unless a manager is occasionally prepared to push the team hard, the team will never achieve all that it is capable of doing.

What do you think? Should a boss be unreasonable on occasion or does this just give them license to demand too much?