When I was a summer camp counselor, I made a mistake I think about to this day, 24 years later. On the last morning of a five-day hiking trip, the group was divided about whether to climb one more mountain. I told the campers we were going to do it and left the campsite for a few minutes. When I returned, the kids had united behind one boy in deciding not to do it. I was disappointed and angry. Rather than having a constructive discussion, I engaged the boy in an argument and refuted his points. Instead of validating his perspective, I discredited him. Now that I had regained control of the group, I led them up that final mountain and then out of the woods to return to camp.
It was a terrible error. It was not leadership. It was weakness borne out of fear. We should have had a group discussion and weighed the pros and cons of our options. Ultimately, the plan for the day was my responsibility as the leader. But instead of dismissing the camper who had the courage to express himself, disagree with me and persuade the others, I should have embraced his dissent and listened to him carefully and respectfully. We were on that trip together. I should have been secure and confident enough to tolerate disagreement and then make a final choice.
The harmony of wolves
My teenage son told me recently about how wolves harmonize when they howl to create the illusion of greater numbers than they are in reality. Union General Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs that he once heard the crying of two wolves and mistook them to be 20. That’s what I heard when I returned to the campsite: A harmony of wolves. Instead of being a secure leader who listens to his group, I rejected dissent and refused to acknowledge the validity of other points of view. But they weren’t wolves. They were not threatening me. They were kids expressing themselves. Their self-expression deserved to be embraced and celebrated.
This is a common, classic mistake in business. Managers often misread disagreement as defiance. It’s not. There’s nothing wrong with dissent. In fact, it’s an unmistakable sign of a healthy group. People need to feel safe to express themselves. Silence your colleagues and you will lose them. Effective leaders listen, discuss various views and then make a decision. The strong are kind. The secure listen to others. It is weak and fearful to ignore dissent and discredit someone who disagrees.
The late Civil War historian Shelby Foote would tell of a young, scared Confederate soldier on guard one night, camped across the river from the Union Army. An owl called out, “hooo,” and the boy replied, “It’s me, sir, a friend of yours!” This is how we often behave in business, whether or not we realize it. But we have nothing to fear. There is no conspiracy. At my old firm, a colleague once taught me that when we suspect foul play, there is usually a simpler explanation, such as machine failure or human error. He was right.
Sometimes you’ll be tested when you’re not feeling strong. Your greatest challenge may come when you’re most vulnerable. You may even face a particularly confusing confluence of factors: Facing great challenge when your former ally is now your adversary. Maybe an ex-colleague is competing to hire the same person. Maybe they’re on the other side of a trade. They can be a competitor without being enemy. They can be your opponent without being a hostile foe. It will be okay. You will endure, even if you make mistakes. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Never has a better writer been more wrong. Just goes to show that even the best are not perfect. Few things are more American than second chances and even fewer are more characteristic of the hedge fund business. You’ll make mistakes, then recover and redeem yourself.
British musician Ben Howard sings about how we “live in the confines of fear,” which is a great way to capture the suffocating effect of fear. You cannot see the great expanse ahead and around you when you live in fear. Your perspective is myopic and narrow. It feels as if the world is closing in on you. It’s not. Stand up, throw off the blinders and broaden your vision. Let yourself hear other opinions and take a moment to consider that you may not be right all the time. That’s true strength. That’s real leadership.
The vast and endless sea
World War Two French fighter pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” To build and lead a great firm, do the same. Hire the finest talent, train them for the challenge, engage them in teamwork and show them the open possibility of the future. And listen to them. Their perspectives matter. This is what I should have done with my camp group: Focus on the positives of climbing one more mountain rather than zeroing in on the negatives of not climbing it.
You have to listen to lead. You have to listen to inspire. Your team will follow you if they know you care about what they think, even if you ultimately decide on a different path. Strong leaders engage in open discussion and then choose the course of action. Considering other perspectives enables you to make informed decisions and validates your colleagues’ views, which draws them closer to you. Teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea — and set sail together.