Some say prophets, and their modern equivalents—management consultants—constitute the “second oldest profession.” There is ample evidence, as far back as the 8th Century BC, of an established class of paid advisers who many contend were a part of a king’s court. These advisers were called prophets, and they were paid to prognosticate on behalf of the king.
Ancient wisdom is seasoned with warnings about false prophets. The only reliable test of a prophet and his or her prophecy was the test of hindsight—whether the prophecy of what was to come turned out to be true or not. The purpose of the prophet’s message, however, was to stimulate change—repentance or a change of mind.
Therefore, ironically, if the prophet was successful in provoking a change in the way the king and his court were thinking, then the prophecy of what was to come may not happen, leaving the prophet exposed to criticism and false prophecy. The dilemma for the prophet is that if he is successful in getting the king to change his mind, then the prophet risks ruining his own credibility and career. Unless, of course, he has an understanding and grateful king.
The perennial presence of prophets in today’s world of corporate and governmental “kingdoms” is a testament to their usefulness. At the very least, prophets can help us see the error of our ways and how the arrogance of success sows the seeds of its own failure. However, Hamel has made a very useful distinction: most prophets and their modern equivalents tend to be more interested in making things better; e.g., continuous improvement. While these efforts are absolutely necessary for most corporations, a growing number of companies appear to be awakening to the fact that making things better, while necessary, is not sufficient. Corporate renewal requires “something different,” and that is more likely to come from a heretic than a prophet.
Hence the necessity of the heretic. When asked what his most important responsibility was in leading the staff at the Pentagon, General Matthew Ridgeway (MacArthur’s successor) simply said, “Protect the maverick.” Many of our corporate organizations have failed to reflect Ridgeway’s wisdom. Last year I was with a client group planning a series of strategic planning and invention sessions, and when it came time to discuss who would participate I suggested that we be sure to include their resident maverick. Without exception, everyone knew the kind of person about whom I was referring. Not a pain-in-the-neck iconoclast, but the prolific, inventive, productive, and often pain-in-the-neck heretic. “But Lanny,” said the director of R&D, “you don’t understand. With all the re-engineering and down-sizings we have been through over the past ten years, all the mavericks have left.”
George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “reasonable men adapt to their environment. Unreasonable men try to adapt the environment to themselves. Thus, all progress is the result of the efforts of the unreasonable man.”
We might all do better to honor the prophet among us—even those who are in our own “country and land.” However, we might all build a bridge to our corporation’s future by protecting the maverick among us.
This article by Lanny Vincent was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in April 1998. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.
© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd.