Skip to content

Leveraging The Power Of Story

2022 April 17
by Greg Satell

Some years back I was invited to visit the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Over the years many of the world’s greatest minds have taken up residence there. It was where Einstein worked till his death in 1955. It is a place, for me at least, in which stories permeate from every corner and crevice.

There is a common room in the main building, Fuld Hall, where tea is served every afternoon and, if you know the stories, you can almost hear the din of legends arguing, cajoling and discussing pathbreaking ideas when you enter. That is the power of story. It can imbue even inanimate objects with meaning.

Look at great leaders throughout history, from General George Patton to Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs, and they all used the power of story to anchor an enterprise with a sense of mission and destiny. It was undoubtedly a big part of their success. We need to learn to tell better stories, if we are to give meaning to others and build faith in a common endeavor.

read more…

It’s Time To Rethink The Change Gospel

2022 April 10
by Greg Satell

Today it’s become an article of faith that we live in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). Business pundits tell us that we must “innovate or die.” These are taken as basic truths that are beyond questioning or reproach. Those who doubt the need for change risk being dismissed as out of touch.

This is the change gospel and it is worshiped with almost religious fervor. Yet the evidence suggests exactly the opposite. An even relatively casual examination of relevant data would reveal that, for incumbent businesses at least, the era we live in now is far more stable, less innovative and less productive.

In a nutshell, we are talking about change more, but doing it less. That’s a problem. Managers who want to be seen as change leaders launch too many initiatives. Employees, for their part, get jaded and wait for the newest idea to fail, just as the others before did. The result is inevitably innovation theater, rather than meaningful change. We desperately need to fix this.

read more…

Leading Through Uncertainty

2022 April 3
by Greg Satell

Leaders need to make decisions and we rarely get to choose the context. Most often, we need to take action without all the facts, in a rapidly changing environment and a compressed time frame. We need to do so with the knowledge that if we get it wrong, we will bear the blame and no one else. It will be our mess to clean up.

That’s a hard bridge to cross and many, if not most, are never quite able to get there. I think that’s why we admire great leaders so much, because they have the courage to take responsibility on their backs and be accountable, to inspire confidence even in an atmosphere of confusion and to point the way forward, even if they aren’t sure it’s the right direction.

The truth is that you can never really be certain until you take that step forward. The simple and inescapable truth is that to accomplish anything significant you need to travel on an uncertain journey. It is tautologically true that the well-trod path will take us nowhere new. We can never fully control uncertainty, but we can learn to lead through it.

read more…

We Need To Stop Doubling Down On Bad Ideas

2022 March 27
by Greg Satell

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a number of organizations and each one involved a series of steep learning curves. Even the most successful operations do some things poorly, so managing an enterprise involves constant improvement. You always want to figure out where you can do things better.

One way to do that is to identify other organizations that do something well and adopt best practices. Copying what others do won’t make you world class, but it will get you started on the right road. Over time, you can learn which practices are a good fit for your organization and which are not. As you progress, you can begin to develop your own capabilities.

What you don’t want to do is to take bad ideas that have failed try and force them through, yet it happens all the time. Business pundits and consultants don’t stop selling zombie ideas just because they don’t work and people don’t stop getting taken in by slick sales jobs. We need to be much more discerning about the ideas we adopt. Here are some to watch out for.

read more…

Adopting A Changemaker Mindset

2022 March 20
by Greg Satell

Every time I speak to a group of executives, they complain that their organizations desperately need to change, but that the bosses are hostile to it. And every time I speak to a group of leaders, they say that change is their highest priority, but can’t seem to align the rank-and-file behind transformational initiatives.

The truth is that everybody loves their own brand of change, it’s other people’s ideas and initiatives that they don’t like. We all have things that we want to be different. But the status quo has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully. To want change is one thing, but to change ourselves, well… that’s another story.

What I’ve found in both my research and my practice is that people who bring about transformational, even historic, change start out no differently than anyone else. In fact, early versions of them are often decidedly unimpressive. The difference between them and everyone else is that somewhere along the way they learn to adopt a changemaker mindset.

read more…

There Are Important Lessons We Should Learn From The War In Ukraine

2022 March 13
by Greg Satell

The war in Ukraine is, in so many ways, an unspeakable tragedy. An unprovoked attack by a cynical power, continuous and barbaric shelling of innocent civilians and what may be the largest refugee crisis in history, makes us recalibrate what humans are capable of. And all of this, for the most part, to satisfy the hubris of one man.

Yet despite the horrors, I am hopeful. In the 20 years I have been involved with Ukraine, I have seen it evolve from a kleptocratic post-communist state to an emerging democracy with the power to inspire the world. I could not have imagined, when I first fell in love with the place all those years ago, what has come to pass.

The truth is that Ukraine has much to teach us beyond the mighty courage and spirit we see on our TV screens. The reason Ukrainians fight so bravely is because they have struggled so long and hard. It is because of that struggle that they know what they are fighting for. That’s why, despite the cold calculations by armchair strategists, Ukraine defies expectations.

read more…

We’re In For A Decade Of Generational Strife. Here’s How To Navigate It.

2022 March 6
by Greg Satell

The physicist Max Planck made many historic breakthroughs, including a discovery that led to quantum theory. Still, he lamented that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Clearly, that’s not only true for scientific truths. Every generation rejects some notions of their elders, explores things on their own and adopts new ideas. Some of those ideas will survive, but others will ultimately be rejected, which always causes some acrimony. Even Aristotle complained about the “exalted notions” of the youth.

Yet this time is different. Because the Boomer generation was so large, and Generation X so small, those who came of age in the 1960s essentially ruled for two epochs. The rising Millennial generation, which is now the largest, holds starkly different values than Boomers. Over the next decade, as Millennials come to predominate, we can expect tensions to rise.

read more…

Learning From Mistakes Is What Separates Truly Revolutionary Leaders From Everyone Else

2022 February 27
by Greg Satell

In 1919, Mahatma Gandhi, who had long established himself as a revolutionary leader of uncommon strategic acumen, called for a general strike throughout India to protest unjust laws levied on his people by the British. It was, at least at first, an enormous success. In Mumbai, for example, 80% of shops closed their doors.

Yet things soon got out of hand. What began as peaceful protests against oppression turned violent. Riots broke out. The moral high ground that Gandhi so coveted—and relied on to accomplish his objectives—would crumble under his feat. Things ended with a horrible massacre at Amritsar. Gandhi would later call it his Himalayan miscalculation.

Yet that wasn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. He not only admitted his mistake, he vowed to learn from it. Ten years later, when the opportunity presented itself, he took a very different tack, which led to the Salt March and became his greatest triumph. It is often the ability to learn from mistakes that makes the difference between success and failure.

read more…

4 Myths That Are Killing Business Today

2022 February 20

The unicorn is perhaps unique among myths in that the creature doesn’t appear in the mythology of any culture. The ancient Greeks, for all of their centaurs, hydras and medusas, never had any stories of unicorns, they simply thought that some existed somewhere. Of course, nobody had ever seen one, but they believed others had.  

Beliefs are amazing things. We don’t need any evidence or rational basis to believe something to be true. In fact, research has shown that, when confronted with scientific evidence which conflicts with preexisting views, people tend to question the objectivity of the research rather than revisit their beliefs. Also, as Sam Arbesman has explained, our notions of the facts themselves change over time.

George Soros and others have noted that information has a reflexive quality. We can’t possibly verify every proposition, so we tend to take cues from those around us, especially when they are reinforced by authority figures, like consultants and media personalities. Over time, the zeitgeist diverges further from reality and myths evolve into established doctrine. 

read more…

The Lifecycle of a Breakthrough

2022 February 13
by Greg Satell

Many experts suspect that the Covid crisis is finally beginning to recede. It is, of course, hard to know for sure. There will continue to be debate and we will still need to have measures in place for some time now. Still, for the most part, people are back at work, kids are in school, and relatively normal routines have returned.

Generations from now, historians will most likely still question what lessons are to be gleaned from the past few years. Should we strengthen our multilateral institutions or have they become so sclerotic that they need to be dismantled? Is the rise of populist nationalism a harbinger for the future or a flash in the pan?

One thing I don’t expect to be hotly debated, in fact seems perfectly clear even now, is that science saved us. Untold thousands, working mostly anonymously in labs around the world, created a vaccine of astonishing efficacy in record time. It is these types of breakthroughs that change the course of history and, if we can embrace their power, lead us to a better future.

read more…