Thought Leadership Lies

There are scores of widely accepted laws that accurately describe the realities of business.

The Peter Principle: People are promoted to their level of incompetence. That means a person will rise within an organization until he or she is placed in a job they are really bad at.

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time allotted to it. That means project deadlines will always be met – if they are met – at the last possible moment, with no time left to fix or adjust them. 

Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong. That means . . . well, you know what that means.

My favorite law, and the one that seems to me to encapsulate all the others, is Sturgeon’s: Ninety percent of everything is crap.

You know it’s true, especially if you’ve lived long enough, or run a business. Most of your initiatives – new products, processes, or hires – will turn out poorly. Perhaps not 90 percent of them, but a majority. Most IT systems never perform as you hope (if they work at all) and, according to a (somewhat controversial) 2014 Tufts study, less than one-in-10 drug compounds considered in preclinical studies ultimately makes it to market, which hits Sturgeon’s Law dead on, and is partly why drug development costs (and therefore, the industry argues, new drug prices) are so breathtakingly high.

So if everyone knows that upper management is full of incompetents, businesses almost never have breathing room between deadlines, things go wrong all the time, and 90% of everything is crap, why is most thought leadership so reluctant to acknowledge or describe business problems with any degree of specificity? Almost all the thought leadership I read describes a world in which disasters are challenges, failures are called headwinds, and companies caught up in scandals are not to be named (even if the companies and the gory details have been widely covered in the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal).

I understand that professional services firms never want to offend current or even potential clients by pointing out that their babies are ugly, but this reticence – and the mealy-mouthed articles and white papers it spawns – sabotages their ability to describe real business problems (which, as my colleague Bob Buday explained here, is absolutely necessary to good thought leadership) in ways that will resonate with the very business leaders they are trying to address and impress. I have met and spoken with many operational leaders at large companies, and they are not delicate flowers. They deal in hard truths every day, and if a professional services firm airily describes a major meltdown as a challenge, or (and this really happened) the scandal-ridden Siemens as a “large European engineering company,” they will put down whatever article or white paper they are reading, and never think of the firm behind it again.

I believe this is why so many articles that aspire to thought leadership fail: They do not describe the real world in which Peter’s, Parkinson’s, Murphy’s, and Sturgeon’s laws apply. They do not call things by their proper names, and they do not provide the real world details of the problems they purport to solve.

In the thought leadership business, detailed, honest descriptions of business problems give weight to the solutions firms offer, and that can make a big difference in the market of ideas. In "A Few Good Men," Jack Nicholson famously told Tom Cruise that he couldn't handle the truth. But the executives you wish to reach can.

Give it to them. 

Add new comment