Perhaps the most fundamental quest in human history has been to find ‘the
path to a fulfilled life.’ Throughout time, men and women have
sought to address this question at various levels of depth. For some it has
been a shallow ‘tell me everything I need to know in five minutes’ while
for others it has truly been a life’s work. For many this search has
been expressed through a religious journey, some through exploration of the
natural universe, some through personal conquest, and increasingly today many
find expression in the world of business. (Indeed we have heard it said that
business has replaced religion as the source for meaning in people’s
lives.) People in this category may attempt to find fulfilment through building
huge organisations, by amassing personal wealth or perhaps creating something
of enduring worth.
Hand in hand with the individual quest, have been those who offer to provide
either “the answer” or guidance along the path. In the field of
religion we have priests, rabbis, mullahs and teachers. We also have heretics.
In personal health we have doctors and medical practitioners of all varieties.
We also have quacks and snake oil salesmen. In business we have consultants
on the one hand and charlatans on the other (See Thomas
Szasz). Somewhere in that mix, and across all fields of endeavour we have ‘gurus’.
A few years ago Spiral Path worked for a one of the Big Five professional services
firms in Melbourne. It was an eye opening experience. we could see in the
eyes and hear in the words of our clients two very different perceptions
of us. One the one hand there was a deep distrust. Our fees were higher than
anyone else in town and they knew, or suspected, that we were looking for
ways to broaden the engagement (and hence charge more fees) in almost every
conversation. In short, they felt we were out to ‘screw them’.
On the other hand, they engaged us because our fees were so high. Our fees
must be the highest because we must be the best. When they came to a presentation
in our offices, they met us at the hallowed thirteenth floor. There was a hush
when the lift opened. We did everything we could to make them feel it was their
privilege to be invited to come here. We provided them with a magnificent view
of Melbourne (a metaphor for our omniscience), the meeting was attended by
waiters who would serve tea, coffee and biscuits individually and when they
went to the bathroom they were regaled with marble walls stone floors and gold
Throughout all this, Spiral Path felt they entertained (and we encouraged)
one abiding fantasy about us. Yes they could come to Level 13. But there
were parts of the building only staff were allowed. Surely there was, somewhere
higher in the building that they could only dream of where only the most
devout staff could go. A place where there was a huge book laid out on an
alter. In the book were all the possible scenarios that could face a business.
More importantly, next to each scenario was “the answer” — what
the business needed to do to solve the problems it faced or to obliterate
its competition. In their heart of hearts, Spiral Path believes this is what
they hoped they were paying for.
Spiral Path keeps this experience in mind whenever a new book, article or theory
comes across our desk. When we evaluate any leadership theory, the most fundamental
question we need to address is to what extent it provides practical and useful
direction in the art of leading and to what it extent it feeds our fantasy that
it is a shortcut that will enable us to lead and be successful without doing
the hard work of being a leader.