How to succeed in business by understanding irony


Effective leaders understand how little they control and avoid trying to pull all the strings.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, ironically the only president not belonging to an organized religion, used irony to explain God's higher purpose and control his depression during the seemingly senseless tragedy of the Civil War.

Irony is like the air we breath and breathing itself. They are perpetual, ever-present components of human existence. Yet, we are rarely conscious of them and how they affect our lives. Indeed, millions of people cannot explain them.

Most modern business people do understand the chemistry of air and the mechanics of breathing because their educations and training emphasized practical, quantifiable processes. Breathing is similar to turning raw materials into products or meeting someone and converting that person into a customer.

Yet ironically, the more successful a business person becomes, the less likely he (in fewer cases, she) is to appreciate the inevitable irony of his situation.

The janitor rules

Compare the janitor at the headquarters of a giant corporation with the CEO. The janitor is virtually anonymous, paid little and instantly replaceable, while the CEO is wealthy and responsible for everything that happens in and to the organization.

At the same time, only the janitor is in total control of performing his job and delivering the expected results, a clean facility. Despite wielding power and influence, the CEO is dependent upon others to get anything done, including the sanitary conditions of the rest rooms. That is irony, but the most simple and obvious in the labyrinth of corporate functioning.

The difference between leaders and bosses

Leaders understand irony, but bosses do not. Successful leaders know that positive and negative things happening to a company result from many, interconnected circumstances, as well as the talents of its people and the quality of its products. Bosses are people who believe only in a Machiavellian reality where the strong and clever prosper, and the rest follow.

Plenty of companies are run by bosses who may or may not get tripped up by forces beyond their control; problems they might have seen in advance if not impaired by their own egos and sycophants around them. If you are a sharp, young manager, who aspires to become a leader, here are five things you can do to understand and take advantage of ubiquitous irony.

  • Read history, philosophy and literature. Too many business people are unaware that every unique technological breakthrough, boom, bubble, recession, act of God, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has in fact been experienced over and over throughout history. The real products, services and modes of distribution change but the way that enterprises respond, adapt, succeed or fail are always the same. To quote the bard: “Past is prologue.”
  • Hunt for contradictions.In business, good news always has an asterisk attached to it. Never accept rosy forecasts or can’t miss opportunities without trying to find hidden threats.
  • Benevolently doubt yourself and others. Although leaders must be confident and forcefully question, criticize and correct team members, they must never forget their own fallibility and humanity. Be kind, because you know that the janitor has more real control than you do.
  • Recognize the humor in everything. Once aware of the irony in everything, you have to either laugh or cry. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest leader in American history was acutely aware of the irony surrounding him (books have been written about it) and used humor to manage his own depression and buoy the spirits of others.
  • Master the illusion of control. Once you accept the ironic fact that leadership is permission to persuade and guide, not authorization to demand and control, you will be ready to appear all-powerful.

If the concepts and conclusions of this post have been perfectly clear, I apologize.

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