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Does a Leader Have to Be Paranoid to Be Successful?

, Jonathon A. Flaum

“Paranoia means having all the facts.”
  —William S. Burroughs

Sander A. Flaum:
I firmly believe that to be successful in business I have to learn absolutely everything I can, not just about my clients, but also about my competition. I always assume that my competitors are out to woo my best clients as well as my best people. I know I have to work harder, smarter and more vigilantly than anybody else, because if my clients are not happy with my company for some reason, they will soon enough become interested in my competitors. I need to maintain my competitive edge because everything I’ve achieved can be swept away in an instant if I let down my guard and rest on the laurels of yesterday’s success.

Business has nothing to do with yesterday and everything to do with the present. You’d better believe that you are only as good as your last project. Ask yourself—did your most recent client service deserve a grade of A+ or did you simply do what was expected? Delivering just enough to meet a client’s expectations is the kiss of death. If you’re not exceeding expectations every time, then you’re falling behind.

Jeff Rich, the CEO of ACS, the $4-billion public company famous for its invention of service products like EZ Pass, puts it this way: “Be it a human resource function, an accounting function, or a New York EZ Pass function – how to collect money, how to improve the collection rates, how to get the bills out faster, how to get the money moving faster – we lay awake at night thinking about that kind of thing.”

Jeff knows that today’s exceeded expectations become tomorrow’s new standard. The bar for client expectations is continually raised. That means constantly topping your best performance and not being satisfied with anything less than innovation every time – a result that causes your customer to exclaim, “Wow, I never would have thought of that on my own; good thing we have you around!”

Does this mean I’m paranoid when it comes to business? Absolutely! Paranoia is a key ingredient of success. Does Bill Gates ever take his eye off the ball when it comes to the newest video game technology? Does he miss an opportunity to hire the best programmer in the business? Not on your life. Leadership means having eyes in the front, side and back of your head. It requires you to sleep less and work harder and smarter than your competition. And yes, it requires a healthy dose of paranoia.

Jonathon A. Flaum:
I agree with my father about the necessity of paying vigilant attention to client and customer expectations and exceeding them every time—not just to hold on to clients, but to satisfy one’s inner drive to constantly improve. Certainly competition rules in business and if we become complacent or dependent on past successes we will soon find ourselves on the losing end.

What I take issue with is just how this climate affects us in ways not measured by the bottom line. Remaining on high paranoia alert requires a degree of aggressiveness that may help us in business but hurt us as human beings by threatening the basic needs of friendship, intimate partnership, parenthood and the simple joys of everyday life outside of work.

I suggest that we approach competition itself differently, seeing it as an interconnected dance rather than as a dog-eat-dog brawl. The latter view makes us tense and ready to fight while the former challenges us to simply be aware of our surroundings. I take my cue from the ancient Chinese martial art of Tai-Chi Chuan, specifically a technique called pushing hands. This practice pairs individuals so that each can assess where a partner is off-balance, where his or her strengths and weaknesses are and how the energy is moving. The key is to use the other person’s energy against him. For example, if someone is trying to strike you, move out of the way and allow the person’s own force of attack to get him off balance, giving you the upper hand. Pushing hands requires complete relaxation in the body, respect for your partner’s abilities and a subtle awareness of your own position in relation to theirs.

Transferring this concept to the world of business provides the potential to achieve mastery over the competition by being intimate with them, respecting them, understanding them and even feeling grateful to them for making you better. Will practicing this technique hurt your bottom line in business? No, because it requires that you give your undivided attention to your competitors and to the entire field of play. It is about more than the bottom line, which, while never to be ignored, shouldn’t be worshipped at the expense of the life outside the lines—the ones that don’t show up on an earnings graph.

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Jonathon A. Flaum Jonathon A. Flaum is founder and CEO of WriteMind Communications, a consulting firm specializing in public communications skills and organizational creativity. He is also coauthor of The 100-Mile Walk. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.