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Amazon Eats Whole Foods – Are Authentic Leaders Too Predictable?

So we didn’t expect Amazon to do the Whole Foods thing right? Bezos is an unpredictable guy. Reminds me of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, even (especially) Donald Trump. Unpredictable to a fault. Never know what they’re gonna do next.

The traditional leadership canon teaches that leaders should be predictable; authentic they call it. But what I see is that it’s the unpredictable leaders that shake the world up and keep their competitors wrong-footed.

Jeffrey Inmelt is a great example of a predictable leader. Look where that got him and GE. GE has fallen badly behind its peer group. The GE board kept him while the world moved on.

If you are authentic you have strong values which are sustained and you are therefore highly predicable. Pretty difficult to make abrupt sideways or other moves without losing that reputation.

The lesson seems to be that if you want a predictable, safe company that has modest but unexciting returns, get yourself a predictable and authentic leader. If you want to kick butt, get someone unpredictable. Yes, even one like the now much-reviled Travis Kalanick (see my post “Uber-Leading - Are empathy and disruptiveness incompatible?).

You might be thinking that this is bad for the followers of an unpredictable leader. Maybe. If you can’t predict your boss employees tend to be more on their toes. Being somewhat unpredictable means you have to cover more bases, be more agile and be ready for sudden changes. Safe employees don’t like that.

Anyone who has been a leader knows that sometimes your employees need a shakeup. You might even have to be a bit unfair. The French call it “pour encourager les autres”. Traditional leadership types hate this because they don’t think it’s ethical or authentic But it’s life and any experienced leader is well aware of it.

Now of course I don’t mean to say that a leader should always be unpredictable, all the time and in an unfair way. Some of the time you definitely need to be predictable otherwise you’ll rightly have a revolt on your hands. Authentic isn’t necessarily bad except when it’s so predictable that you get picked off easily.

But being totally predictable means that your employees, competitors and naysayers can game you. And they will. If you want to keep at least one step ahead of the game you have to wrong-foot those who would do you harm and try to obstruct your agenda. Being too authentic can be harmful to your corporate health.

Mature companies tend to attract predictable leaders and therefore predictable followers. Competitors and new entrants therefore find them easy to pick off. Look at how Musk with SpaceX and Bezos with Blue Origin have upended the space industry and beaten giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. That’s because the new entrants were unpredictable – still are – and the big ones were sloths and everyone knew what they would do next – namely nothing in strategic terms. Game over.

Being unpredictable means that you have to think differently. Most people don’t do that, especially leaders of mature companies, leadership academics and theorists. It’s hard to think differently when all the pundits and literati, who of course have all analyzed your problems in depth but themselves have no responsibility or accountability for your results, tell you that something is just not done.

Be appropriately quizzical when you hear leadership gurus telling you to be more authentic. Chances are that most have them haven’t led a company to simulate the upsides – and considerable downsides – of rigid authenticity.


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