Three apples, one car, pornography and lessons in leadership

Chris Stevenson

CSC Solutions

There is an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”. Whether you consider it a blessing or a curse, and I argue below that a rapidly changing environment is a great opportunity for leaders, there is no doubt that we live in interesting times.

As I write this article Greece is still in the Euro zone, European banks are solvent and Amanda Knox is innocent. In a few weeks that might all change. We are living through one of those occasional periods when the simple extrapolation of events to predict the future is no longer valid, the future is very different and it takes bold and powerful leadership to create the future that you want. It is a time when leaders can grasp the future and even create the future, this makes it an exciting time for business and a fantastic opportunity for leaders to step forward and make their mark.

This author believes that many parts of the pharmaceutical industry face a similar challenge. More of the same is not a strategy that will work in research, clinical work or marketing and the same applies in my area of knowledge, marketing services and medical education. If this is the case it is leadership that will make the difference, so let’s take a look at leadership and understand what it means and what it looks like in the medical education enterprise.

Three apples

The recent passing of Steve Jobs, the iconic leader of Apple Corp, was extensively covered by the media. His company is the most capitalised in the world and it has more money in the bank than the US government. His ability to design things that were both attractive and enormously popular is legendary. So too is his incredible controlling nature, his reputation for being difficult, his refusal to accept anything that was less than he wanted, and his uncanny knowledge of what the public might want, even before the public knew they wanted it. Indeed, the influence of the Apple Corporation has been so ubiquitous it has been said that there are three apples that have shaped the world, the apple of Adam and Eve, Newton’s apple and Steve Jobs’ Apple. Some of us baby boomers might add the Beatle’s Apple too, but perhaps three is enough.

“…this makes it an exciting time for business and a fantastic opportunity for leaders to step forward and make their mark.”

No doubt Steve Jobs was a leader. So, how did he describe his approach? At a Commencement Address at Stanford University Jobs alluded to his continued success and stated that one needed to “Stay hungry and stay foolish” to succeed. I’m sure we understand the comment about hunger, but foolishness? What did he mean? Is foolishness a part of leadership?

Fool to cry

What Jobs meant by foolishness was the willingness to be wrong, to make mistakes, to take chances that don’t always come off. This is a key part of leadership. In a management world dominated by focus groups, advisory boards and consensus it takes a leader to state that they are going to do something that no one else has done, and that market research cannot define. Of course, I’m not saying that market research has no use, or that Apple doesn’t undertake market research, clearly research has its uses and Apple utilises research. The point is that research can only go so far and that it takes leadership, a willingness to invest time and resources, a willingness to sometimes be wrong and make mistakes, a willingness to learn from mistakes, forgive mistakes and move on that makes the difference. This is about belief.

A faster horse

Henry Ford, another amazing business leader, said that if he had asked his customers what they wanted they would have asked for a faster horse. This is a great example of the limitations of research, it cannot predict things that it doesn’t know about. Ford had the leadership qualities to understand these limitations and the belief (there it is again) that what he was creating would be valuable and would change the world. He was right, but he made a lot of mistakes along the way, or as Jobs would have put it, Ford was willing to look foolish from time to time.

What does it look like?

We have considered a couple of examples of leadership, and it is clear that a number of crucial aspects of leadership are belief in what you are doing, a disregard for the extrapolator view of the future, or perhaps a strongly held vision of a different future and a willingness to make mistakes, learn from them and move forward, as well as a constant hunger for improvement, better products and services, better client satisfaction and new solutions. Perhaps we can replace the word foolishness with belief and courage.

Indeed, there are many learned books about leadership that many of us will have read, or perhaps skimmed through in an airport lounge that describe the phenomenon in much more detail than we can here. Therefore, let’s be specific and ask what leadership looks like in the marketing services and medical education world. Perhaps it is best to take a pragmatic view, just as US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart did when asked to define obscenity (or pornography) in the movie The Lovers. Instead of trying to provide a detailed description he is widely quoted as saying “…..I know it when I see it…”. Let’s apply this approach to leadership and describe what we should look for in managers that might help differentiate them as leaders.

“…it takes a leader to state that they are going to do something that no one else has done, and that market research cannot define.”

Firstly, we might expect them to be difficult people to deal with. They present a view of the world that challenges the status quo and this will make many other managers uneasy. They often talk about intangible things, such as visions of the future, that make the data driven managers struggle to understand or measure the validity of what is being said. They spend time looking forward not backwards at numbers and charts.

Secondly, they may often be frustrated by the pace of change in their organisation. They may even become angry, intolerant, even belligerent and demanding, and other managers may describe them as unreasonable.

Thirdly, they will not spend time on internal matters such as administration, or internal discussions unless they can help them achieve their vision. They are more likely to be with customers, at external meetings and may even be described as being neglectful of the internal operations of your business.

Fourthly, they may have a reputation for making mistakes. They might have had an idea or two that didn’t work, as well as a couple that did. Other managers might perceive them as somewhat reckless with resources, even negligent in their management role, and perhaps as irresponsible. In many cases the leadership person will be described as a bad manager.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they make things happen. They don’t sit in meetings talking about change, they drive change, they don’t allow obstacles to get in their way and they are impatient for change.

Tolerance and impatience

The description above illustrates that leaders are not always easy to work with. They are intolerant, often argumentative, demanding and impatient. Of course, they are also often exciting, inspirational, amazingly energetic, enthusiastic and positive about the future.

However, as leaders in the past have shown, they are able to create new and exciting futures, to inspire and energise whole organisations, produce new products that have differentiation and increased value, and can take businesses into new markets and to new heights of success. This author believes that our industry needs such leadership today, perhaps more than ever.

Consider your organisation. Does the “Leadership” of your organisation behave with the qualities of leadership? Will you as a manager recognise leadership in others and encourage it, or will you find it frustrating and want it to go away. As a manager, with the responsibility for the future of the organisation squarely on your shoulders, your primary activity should be to show leadership and create the right future and, equally importantly, to find and encourage leadership in others. Your job is not to “Manage” leadership out of the organisation, so that everyone is well behaved it is to tolerate the disruption, encourage the thinking and provide the resources to allow leaders to flourish and develop your business for the future.

“Leaders don’t call themselves leaders. They champion ideas, feel strongly about what must be done, accept mistakes and keep moving forward…”

Leaders do not have to be the most senior people in an organisation. However, the senior people must be willing to support the leaders. If a manager only manages then, in a rapidly changing environment such as we are experiencing today, they will simply do more of the same with the likelihood that what they do decreases in value and may even become of no value.

Leaders don’t call themselves leaders. They champion ideas, feel strongly about what must be done, accept mistakes and keep moving forward, and find the resources to create their vision. If you have a vision or you feel frustrated that the new future is not being created, if you want to create something new and are frustrated with the unwillingness to provide the resources, then recognise that you too have a responsibility. You must continue to argue for change, do not accept the status quo, and keep describing your vision even if you feel people will not listen. Accept the disappointments in the knowledge that to give up is not an option. Your business needs you today, more than it has ever done, and the opportunities are greater than they have ever been.

About the author:

Chris Stevenson is a managing partner at CSC Solutions, a strategic consultancy offering insight in marketing and communications to the pharmaceutical and medical communications industries. CSC Solutions specialises in the design, moderation and execution of communication plans, strategic marketing advisory boards, and CME strategic consulting.


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Does the “Leadership” of your organisation behave with the qualities of leadership?