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Psychology @ Work: Nick Tasler

When Gutsy Business Leaders Are Needed

As the stock prices of Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) continue to search for solid footing, this seems a good time to reevaluate exactly what kind of leaders the auto industry needs.

Picture this: A strung-out savior—high on cocaine and vodka—comes galloping into Detroit on a strong, white steed with a stream of hair-brained ideas that wind up rescuing an ailing automaker. Sounds like a fairy tale that even Shrek would find twisted, doesn’t it?

New research by neuroscientist David Linden at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suggests that such an individual might be just the leader for the job. I’m in no way suggesting that drug or alcohol abuse is the secret to great leadership, nor am I coaching tamer executives to pick up addiction. What Linden has discovered, however, is that the brains of drug addicts and alcoholics very closely resemble the brains of bold, visionary leaders who thrive in uncertain times.

In other words, it’s not the use of drugs that makes certain leaders bolder. It is the biological craving for stimulation that leads some to travel down the path of helpless addiction while others relentlessly pursue substance-free success down a bolder, riskier path than that taken by "safety-first" peers.

Linden’s research poses three key questions for leaders:

1. Do you employ the type of leader who thrives under uncertainty?

The unique hard-wiring of the brains of addicts and visionaries gives these kindred spirits what Linden describes as the Holy Trinity of addictive traits: obsessive-compulsive tendencies, a high need for risk-taking, and a strong desire for novelty-seeking. I call executives with this special blend of traits Potential Seekers. We don’t have to look hard to find examples in the business world. Consider such Silicon Valley eminences as Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs and Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison. It’s easy to see why compulsive risk-taking and an obsession with uncovering the Next Big Thing serve as success traits for these individuals. High speed and even higher uncertainty are baked into the DNA of the high-tech industry. Succeeding with a technology business without those traits is the greater challenge.

Again, it’s not that any of these visionaries actually possess addictions. Many likely view controlled substances the way maverick Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson does. Branson admits to having experimented with different drugs, adhering to his motto "I’ll try anything once," during Virgin’s early days. He concluded quickly that he far preferred the stimulation of building and running an enterprise to the temporary returns that drug use provides. Many other leaders may not even need to experiment with substances to uncover this truth. Their central feature is the craving for stimulation.

Leaders such as Jobs and Ellison not only are better at coping in highly uncertain environments, they prefer the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Uncertainty itself triggers their pleasure sensors. It’s been my experience that Potential Seekers prefer chaos because they perform so well in the midst of it, compared to more-reserved peers.

Motorcycle-riding, Wild Turkey-drinking Potential Seekers such as Herb Kelleher prove that Potential Seekers can be great leaders, even beyond the realm of high technology. Kelleher was like a kid in a candy store when he marched Southwest Airlines (LUV) into the well-established, albeit profit-averse, airline industry.

2. Is now the right time for your brash leaders to step up?

There are a time and a place in which this type of leader is best-equipped for success. For most of the twentieth century, Potential Seekers simply would not have been well-suited for leadership roles in a strong, safe industry such as automaking. Not only would they have been miserable, their antics and risky leadership style would have risked smashing the company nest egg. Promoting a freewheeling risk-taker would have caused the auto giants’ shareholders to wonder why a borderline adrenaline junkie was given the power to drag their cash cow close to the edge of destruction—before the inevitable firing. Look no further than Lee Iacocca’s rise and fall at Chrysler to review both sides of the coin.

Shareholders and pundits would rightly have asked: Why take the chance? Today, however, things look very different. As Ford’s and General Motors’s stock prices continue to struggle, is there now reason to risk it?

3. Do you or your key leaders need to step down?

Winston Churchill is among the historic heroes Linden cites as possessing the Holy Trinity of addictive traits. It’s well known that Churchill was a big drinker and a wartime hero. Many forget that he was less-celebrated in times of peace and relative safety. Nobody wanted this ferocious firebrand to upset the U.K.’s apple cart.

When Adolf Hitler moved troops toward Great Britain’s doorstep, it became clear to everyone that Churchill was the right leader for the post of Britain’s Prime Minister. Even Neville Chamberlain, the man whom Churchill replaced, publicly confessed that Churchill had been right and was the type of leader the country needed.

I wonder if it’s now time for the Neville Chamberlains of America’s most lagging industries to step aside and let Churchill types have a crack at running things.

Nick Tasler is chief executive officer of Decision Pulse and author of The Impulse Factor: An Innovative Approach to Better Decision-Making.

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