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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

The Leadership Advantage Of Bezos, Musk, Ma And Zhang: An Explorer's Mindset

Be ambitious!

Be daring!

Take chances!

Fail often!

These are the new secrets of leadership success in a digital age, but, then again, this is also exactly what Christopher Columbus did, Vasco da Gama did, Henry Hudson did! For that matter, so did George Custer.

Heroes all, no doubt! But one was killed by the people he was looking for (Custer); one was abandoned by his team and left to die (Hudson); one found the wrong people, in the wrong place, called them by the wrong name, and never knew it (Columbus) and one returned having lost at least half his original crew, and then went on to a career that distinguished itself in mayhem and murder (da Gama). On such exploits, so our history was built.

What do all of these “heroes” have in common? They were all “discoverers.” They knew exactly what they were looking for, what they would find, and were possessed by such a high level of certainty about what they knew that they never asked the important questions that might have saved them from their eventual fates. The 20th century American historian Daniel J. Boorstin spoke of such discoverers as being finders: "[They] show us what [they] already knew was there", and, while they may be necessary for succeeding in the present, this might not be the leadership style to take us into the future.

Compare these "heroes" with Jeff Bezos, recently named as number one in Fortune magazine’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” list, or consider why Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are inevitably compared with Thomas Edison as our era's greatest innovators.  Similarly, why are Jack Ma and Zhang Ruimin receiving so much attention among business leaders in the West? What they all have in common, and what makes them so compelling in an age of continuous and ubiquitous change, is that they are explorers, not discoverers. They are in the business of taking chances in the hopes of opening conversations up, by raising new questions, rather then closing them down, by confirming inherited wisdom.

Exploration, as Boorstin describes it, involves knowingly: encountering and wandering through the unknown. This is considerably different than discovery. Copernicus was an explorer, so was Gallieo. As Adam Gopnik has written in The New Yorker:

Part of Galileo’s genius was to transfer the spirit of the Italian Renaissance in the plastic arts to the mathematical and observational ones. He took the competitive, empirical drive with which Florentine painters had been looking at the world and used it to look at the night sky. …. Galileo, looking through his lens, saw the religious non-subject. [The artists] looked at people and saw angels; he looked at the heavens, and didn’t."

In a similar fashion, John Grotzinger, the project scientist for the Mars Science Labororatory Rover mission [Curiosity], and a professor of geology at Cal Tech, wrote of his admiration for 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell, who, among other things, first explored the "untamed and uncharted Colorado River and into the equally untamed and uncharted Grand Canyon":

Even with all his book learning and field work, the man did not have a clue about what he was getting into. But he did have an idea of what he was searching for. He knew it was all conjecture, but Powell had the kind of scientific hunch that comes from years of work in the field. That is why he went."

He quotes Powell as writing:

We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.

And, he concludes that, ultimately, as a result of such exploration:

"Powell’s expedition rewrote the textbooks of our planet’s history."

Today, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos may be a good illustration of a modern explorer/leader, with his efforts to grow Amazon [e.g., the new Echo device, Kindles and various Prime offerings] as well as his personal ownership and involvment with space-faring Blue Origin [which he began 16 years ago], The Washington Post and other "Bezos Expeditions." Speak with people associated with these ventures and the leadership message of Bezos is consistent: delegate, without suppressing your own curiosity and expertise; constantly question the status-quo; experiment often, and then learn from those experiments. Unlike “discoverers,” Bezos is never setting out to “find what he knows to be out there,” and, in fact, he has argued that: “We need institutions that have the resources and the training and the skill, expertise, to find things;” in other words, organizations and leaders who are equipped to pursue variance-enlargement. This is a far cry from so many of today’s shareholder-value focused leaders who think only of variance-reduction: no surprises!

In a very similar vein, Haier’s Zhang Ruimin appears to welcome the notion that we may be entering “an era of [CEOs] losing control.” Inspired by Peter Drucker’s admonition to build “an enterprise [where] common people do uncommon things,” Zhang sees such a loss of top management control as being necessary to unleash the latent entrepreneurial energy that nearly all organizations possess but fail to deploy. In Zhang’s mind: “We believe that we will lose control, step by step” in the pursuit of what Peter Drucker also had in mind as the ultimate goal of the corporation: creating more customers.

Think as well about the ever restless Richard Branson, or Alibaba’s Jack Ma, or Tesla/Space X’s Elon Musk. Outsized, experimental, audacious and often unreasonable, such leaders are not content to rely upon what they already know, but instead are devoted to a fascination with what they don’t know, and that becomes the energy which drives them and their organizations forward, often disrupting their more complacent neighbors along the way.

Such restlessness is not new, there just may be more of it around these days. Clayton Christensen marked the death of Intel founder, and former CEO, Andy Grove, by observing that:

he never believed that he and his colleagues had the answer. They always were arguing about everything. He knew that they needed to make decisions, of course. But he viewed each decision simply as a road marker that noted progress along the path of argument about how to improve. "He was passionate about finding new ways to think about the business. ….Intel under Andy Grove was continuously improving. They were always trying to improve everything."

Andy Grove helped create Silicon Valley by exemplifying exactly the sort of explorer mindset that we need to take us into the future. As the great artistic explorer Pablo Picasso remarked: “If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme,” and it was this philosophy which led him to eventually create something close to 70 different guitarrepresentations between 1912 and 1914.

The Swiss explorer, and psychiatrist, Bertrand Piccard, who led the first circumnavigation of the globe by balloon (the Breitling Orbiter 3), and who is currently leading the Solar Impulse project, has explained it this way in a talk given at IMD's Organizing for Winning Performance, in June 2014:

Success is not interesting by itself. It is only interesting in what it allows us to do next. Pioneering [Exploring] spirit is not about the new idea. It is about the old certainties we throw away.

This post first appeared on on March 26, 2016.

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