Why CEOs Must Suffer Foolishness Gladly: a Stanford Professor Explains

GettyImages-639060394-compressorAlbert Einstein made some arithmetic errors and Bob Dylan hit a few off notes. But they were still geniuses.

And while few would ever describe them as fools, a failure to accommodate errors in the creative process is a common mistake of business leaders, according to Stanford professor of business management William Barnett.

“If you find a system that’s creating foolishness, there might be a chance of genius,” Barnett said during a recent lecture. “If you’re finding a system that never does anything foolish, there’s no way you get genius.”

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

Barnett’s advice doesn’t necessarily mean that anything goes. He’s more concerned about companies that regularly support consensus views, rather than risk looking foolish by encouraging the airing of controversial ideas. “Humans fear being a fool much more than they hope to be a genius,” he said.

Academic research supports his view that outspoken staff shouldn’t worry too much about looking stupid. In fact, saying nothing at all actually makes people look even more foolish than asking a colleague for advice, according to research released in 2015 by Harvard academics.

To foster a more creative culture, Barnett recommends that CEOs look for the strongest argument instead of the consensus pick. And, as once advised by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, he urges leaders to stop trying to predict the future.

According to Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Apple initially designed iTunes as a device to boost computer sales, but Jobs realized he could change the company’s direction by making it a ubiquitous application. Barnett said if the company had connected the dots forward and kept focusing on selling computers it would have missed a golden opportunity.

“Great leaders are people who understand that it is not their job to know the future. It is their job to create a system that discovers that future,” Barnett said.

SHARE
Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

PARTNER CENTER