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The leader's dilemma (or, why managers can't lead)

Going through my daily round of media links and saw this article in Business Week Online: “How Apple Could Mess Up, Again” (09 Jan 2006)

The article grabbed my attention because I’m currently reading “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen (who was interviewed for the BWO article). Here’s a passage of the article that I like:

We have a case about this at Harvard [Business School], about when John Sculley was the CEO of Apple in the early 1990s. He actually had remarkably clear vision about where the industry was heading. He had three priorities. First, he felt the company needed to get its price down to $1,000, from $3,000 or $4,000 at the time. The second thing was to open up the architecture, by selling the OS. And the third was that handheld devices were going to be big. He was right on all three, but the culture of Apple was just so strong that Sculley just couldn’t change the direction of the ship.

So I always ask the students, “What would you do if you were on Apple’s board?” And they always say the same thing: “Crucify him, and bring in a good manager. “[emphasis mine]

“So who would you bring in?” I ask. And they say: “Bring in someone really strong, who can make those decisions.” So what did Apple do? They brought in Michael Spindler — a strong general manager type who was known for his operations ability. Well, that didn’t work out.

So I ask, “What would you do next?” And they say: “Bring in a good manager — someone who can turn the company around.” Well, they brought in Gil Amelio, who had turned around National Semiconductor. But he only lasted 18 months or so.

So then they bring Jobs back. And why did the company prosper under Jobs? The students’ instinct is to say, because he’s a good manager. I think the reason is that he stopped trying to change the company. He wanted them to do what they had always wanted to do: make cool products, based on proprietary architectures.


This hit me because it clearly shows the “leader’s dilemma” (to paraphrase Christensen’s title). My definition of a leader is one who disrupts the status-quo with the intention of furthering a specific vision. However, if I disrupt the status-quo, this creates uncertainty, and with it, the fear of uncertainty. Results will inevitably drop while the team, clients, etc are learning the new way, and will inevitably improve once the disruption becomes the new status-quo.

The job of managers is to defend the status-quo – managers are “rated” on how they keep things working better. When managers change things too much, results drop and they get fired.

Clayton Christensen’s book is all about the price of maintaining the status quo while a disruptive technology or idea gathers steam and prepares to change the game.

The “leader’s dilemma”: to disrupt the status-quo while seeing the new picture beyond the present, and to communicate this to others, without succumbing to the need to be “popular”.

Solopreneurs need to be strong leaders. We can see beyond the current status-quo, what “works”, and quickly experiment with new ways of doing things, to invent the next way of doing business in our field. We don’t have to be a scaled-down version of a bigger, established company, something that rarely works anyway at the solo level.

The “win” for the Solopreneur is that by finding a new way, we can quickly surpass others who are stuck in old ways of doing things. Instead of just looking to sell your time by charging by the hour, start packaging your expertise. Do something once and get paid many times. Get paid for doing nothing (subscription models). Teach others how to do what you do and license your ideas. Learn to parallel-process, change streams on the fly, meme-surf…

Anyways, I strongly suggest that you get the book and read it.

To be a true leader and a successful solopreneur, the watchword is this… if it ain’t broke, break it!

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