Every now and again, I remember to stop being ignorant. As I get older, I remember this more often, which is odd given how my memory regarding everything else is faring. Odd, but positive, since remembering, more often than not, translates into my actually acting less ignorant and ultimately, it’s the action that matters. In particular, when I remember to be less ignorant, I show far more compassion for the decisions others make.
The Arrogance of Youth
When I was younger, as in not that long ago but long enough that I’m not ashamed to admit these things, I used to often think anyone running anything was a knucklehead. No, really. All of them – not very bright. The owner of the local convenience store down the street when I was growing up? He had a sign that said “Credit card transactions require a $5 minimum purchase.” That’s against Visa and MasterCard rules, and besides, the fee they charge is a percentage of the transaction. Why would you care if the sale is $2 or $20 if the credit card company assesses you based on a percentage fee? You wouldn’t. Ergo, the owner must have been a class-A knucklehead. He probably doesn’t even use the word “ergo” in casual conversations and posts on the World Wide Web. That’s good because I am going into business and I will absolutely demolish all the lesser competition.
The dentist I went to years ago? Well, one day I walked into his office and there was no one to welcome me at the front desk, and there was no bell or any other way to signal my arrival. C’mon, seriously? Terrible service! Customer service 101 – greet the darn customer. He is clearly not very smart. The logical conclusion: If this is the general level of the competition, I am going to be ridiculously successful when I go into business.
A company at which I once worked performed drug screening as part of their employee hiring process. They didn’t hire a guy I knew who was an ace programmer because he tested positive for the wacky weed. Ridiculous! The guy smoked some weed during his off hours. He needed to de-stress. He doesn’t toke up in the bathroom while on the job. I surmised that when I start my company, I would perform drug screens and only hire the people who smoke weed. I will have all the weed-smoking, ace developers and they will probably accept a little less pay because I am so amazing and understanding. Yep, I am going to be so successful!
The President signed what bill? Really? How foolish! That is sooooo clearly a terrible idea. I should be running the country (anyone else ever said this?).
There is no backspace key on the Mac I just bought. What? Steve Jobs is obviously not smart. Why else would there not be a backspace key? Okay, some people were immune to my younger self’s tireless invective. Steve Jobs was one such person …
What goes around …
I recall the first time it hit me that I had been grossly naïve about the people in power and their decision-making proclivities. I was running a mortgage brokerage and I was in my late 20s. We used to post our most competitive interest rates on our website and we would update the information daily. The guy who updated it was out for a few days and it hadn’t been updated in a bit. Okay, maybe more like a week, not more, but the info was admittedly a bit stale. I was talking to one of our customers who told me he had looked on the site and the info was out-of-date and we ought to update it. I remember thinking, “You know what you ought to do, buddy?” But it hit me that he was right. Don’t put info out there that carries an implicit expectation of regular updating and then not deliver. That type of logic is tough to argue against and that’s something that would’ve been easy prey for me to criticize if the neglect fell at someone else’s shoes. But, was not updating it evidence that I was an idiot? I hope not, I don’t think so. I think it actually only evidenced that I was very busy and that particular task just didn’t make the cut that week.
Categorizing Our Criticisms
Our criticisms of our leaders’ actions and failures to act fall into a few camps – some are simply us pointing out straightforward, basically indefensible oversights. I should have asked someone else to update the rate info while our online marketing manager was out. Other times, we have an opinion about how things should be done and there’s an equally valid opinion to do it differently. The drug screening probably falls into this camp – not a terribly complex issue, not lots of moving parts, but certainly fair arguments for and against employee screening of this nature. Other times, we have an opinion about how something should be done and we have absolutely zero understanding of just how hard a decision/issue it actually is. Just about every decision the President makes falls into this camp. Let me assure you, if you find yourself reading about the actions he takes or that the Supreme Court takes — people and groups of that caliber, at that level — and it’s so clear to you that they are wrong, you need a healthy dose of self-awareness. Sorry, those issues and decisions are rarely cut and dry, they are rarely easy ones to make.
More of Those Barbs from the Sidelines
What is easy — far too easy, actually – is sitting on the sidelines and criticizing the decisions on the field. Now, I am not suggesting our criticisms are never justified. Certainly not every leader makes great decisions all the time and yes, there are some people in positions of power that make you scratch your head and wonder how they ever got there. This fact, however, doesn’t infer that they are all knuckleheads. In fact, most of them are bright and driven. Sometimes they make poor decisions, sometimes they overlook things that should be done, and sometimes we are dead-set in our belief that their decision is wrong when it’s not nearly as clear.
A Healthy Dose of Compassion for Those in Charge
Our leaders are generally busy people with a lot of responsibility. And, while it’s so easy to criticize from afar, it’s not so easy to be in the game, swinging away. By that I mean it’s not easy to run a business (let alone a country). Businesses are never perfect. Anyone ever worked with Google and had them penalize one of your companies without valid reason? It happened to me in a financial services company I ran. They wouldn’t let us use AdWords at all, lumping us in with the Internet’s bad actors for some unexplained reason. They were wrong and we were frustrated. Even at Google, mistakes are made. Businesses are full of people and moving parts. They are rarely simple, efficient organizations requiring simple decisions. Business is messy. Those of us who daydream about business often picture elegant organizations, perfectly aligned reporting lines, meticulously crafted and adhered-to position descriptions, software systems talking seamlessly to one another and pushing just the right metrics and operational data to the employees who need it, everyone sharing knowledge at just the right time with just the right people. Ahhh, yes, it is fun to dream. But, business is about people and, in today’s lightning fast “ready-fire-aim” world it is messy, even when it’s effective and profitable.
So, What about All My Smarts?
Back to Google … Yes, they were wrong in blackballing my company. But, that didn’t make Eric, Larry, and Sergei, or anyone else in the Google Empire, knuckleheads. It’s a big company, a massive organization, and things don’t always run perfectly. So, feel free to keep throwing barbs at these organizations and their leaders from the sidelines. Or, you can join the mix and run something – a business, an organization, something with employees, something with a lot of moving parts. I guarantee that when you do, you will have a little more compassion for your fellow leaders. And, if you happen to be a little brighter and a little more vigilant than the competitor down the street (that’s a big “if,” by the way), don’t expect that little edge to be the difference that makes you wildly successful. Yes, if you make better decisions, they will add up and make a difference. And with a whole lot of hard work and a little luck, maybe, just maybe then, you’ll do well. You may even make a little money. But, know that it won’t be because you are so gosh darn smart. And meanwhile, what about your competition? Well, they will be, like all of us — busy, imperfect, possessed of their own little idiosyncrasies, otherwise-focused, entirely human and flawed … but not knuckleheads and not also-rans in the game. I promise you that they’ll give you a run for your money. Enjoy the game!