Jo Owen 7 Mar 2018 01:29pm

The importance of being unreasonable

Next time someone accuses you of being unreasonable, thank them for the compliment. If you want to succeed, you have to be unreasonable – selectively

I know this runs against the nature of management theory for the last 200 years. The Industrial Revolution grew from the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. The earliest movement in management was called Scientific Management, which was the application of time and motion with a human element thrown in as well. That legacy lasts. Managers are still meant to be reasonable.

But you cannot succeed by being reasonable. If Alexander the Great had been reasonable, he would have remained as a ruler in a small tinpot state on the edge of civilisation as it was then. Instead, he set out to conquer the entire known world by the age of 30. He even overthrew the ancient Persian empire, where he was known as Alexander the Barbarian for his destruction.

But we know him as Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, who can remember his diligent cousin, Alexander the Reasonable? The world is not changed by reasonable people.

As a leader, you have to take people where they would not have got by themselves. That means you have to be unreasonable, selectively. If you are unreasonable about everything then you are at best a pain, at worst apsychopath. So what should you be unreasonable about and how?

There are three areas where you need to discover your inner dictator: goals, people and budgets.

If you believe something is impossible, you will always be proved right. The limit of our ambition is the limit of what we can achieve. The best leaders have a profound language deficiency: they do not understand the word “impossible” and fail to grasp the meaning of “no”.

They are ready to stretch for outrageous goals – putting a man on the Moon; the dot.coms that start in a garage before dominating the world; or upstarts like Ryanair, which push aside incumbents – these are not the work of reasonable people settling for reasonable goals.

Leaders know that when you accept excuses you accept failure. There are always reasons why costs should go up, deadlines go back and deliverables go down. The reasonable response is compromise, the unreasonable response is to work out how to get back on track. This is not about shouting at your team. It is about being creative, delegating and empowering your team to find alternatives. If you are unreasonable about sticking to the goal, you have to be reasonable and flexible about how you get there.

Where people are concerned, leaders can appear to be ruthless. Ultimately, the mission comes first. That means you have to have the right team to get you there. You can not afford passengers: move them out. One head teacher hated the idea of being called ruthless. I then interviewed her and found that she had started at her school 25 years earlier with another graduate. They became best friends, shared Sunday lunches and holidays and the children grew up with each other.

When she became head she realised that the English department head was a major obstacle to the success of the school: the head of English was her long standing friend. She fired her friend; the friendship ended and the school succeeded. The head explained that the future lives of 1,200 children came ahead of personal friendship. What comes first for you: your mission or your friendships?

Although you may be ruthless about building the right team, you need to be highly supportive of the team once you have selected them. They need to be confident of your support.

Getting the right budget is as important as getting the right team. You can not build a Rolls-Royce on a Mini budget, however talented your team may be. As the leader, your obligation to the team is to set them up for success. That means you have to make sure they get the right budget and access to the right resources. Negotiate hard.

Managers may be reasonable; leaders often have to be unreasonable.

Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)