Focus on the work itself - Bill Bonner, founder and president of Agora


When asked to share his most powerful leadership technique, Bill Bonner, founder, and president of Agora, a large international publisher of newsletters and other specialized information, replied: “I practice a technique that might be called dynamic indifference. I do not try to lead, probably because I am no good at it. Instead, I merely focus on the work itself.

“What needs to be done? Who’s got a better idea? Who’s going to do it? No attempt is made to lead.

“Just the contrary, people are ignored. Finally, they get tired of being ignored and turn to me for leadership. Then I tell them I can’t help them. This forces them to figure out the problem for themselves and resolve it. “For instance, we had a publication that had been our flagship newsletter but had become very difficult. It was losing money. No one knew quite what to do about it.

“Part of the problem, I realized, was that I was being too much of a leader. People waited for me to lead, to come up with a solution, to tell them what to do.

“So I cleverly abdicated. I said to the team, ‘If you want this product to survive, you’d better figure something out yourself. I’m taking myself out of this project.’ The young woman who was then the editor took the knife between her teeth and went to work. Within six months the publication was profitable again.

“Our business is an example of what Hayek called a spontaneous order.- People are brought in because there is work to do. Those who need someone to tell them what to do generally leave after a few months.

Others learn pretty quickly that they have to figure it out for themselves.

“In France, for example, we tried telling people what to do—from London, no less. It was a disaster. Then, at the end of our ropes, we told the remaining French employees that they would have to figure it out for themselves. ‘Who will be in charge?’ they wanted to know. ‘Whoever takes charge,’ we replied.

“It was chaos for a while. Then, a young guy who is probably a closet Marxist, and who had resisted everything we had tried to do previously, gradually took the bit between his teeth, rallied the others, cut expenses, and seemed to be on his way to figuring out how to run a profitable enterprise. Later, he had what seemed to be a nervous breakdown and it looked like, once again, the company was headed down the tubes. Dynamic indifference doesn’t always work. But, it’s what you do when you can’t do better. And it works amazingly well, amazingly often. After the defection of one of the star members, the surviving members of the management team pulled together and, once again, seem to be staging a comeback.

“For a long time, we thought we were completely alone in our business practices. We also thought they were a result of our own inadequacies. We could not run a business, so the business had to run itself. “Then we discovered that our approach had a serious business school following. It is called market-based management, and it is studied at George Mason University. So we invited the professor to come out and explain it to us. ‘Hey, that’s what we already do,’ said our key managers.

“It is not the only way to run a business. Nor even the best way. But it is one way.”

Bonner’s parting advice on leadership for CEOs is to, “Forget about leadership. Focus on the work.”

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