August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

The Dark Side of Leadership

Never get out of the boat. Absolutely god damn right. Unless you were going all the way.

-Willard in Apocalypse Now

My Zen teacher wasn’t the mild mannered, taciturn, picture of inscrutable wisdom of myth and legend. He was a highly humorous, iconoclastic, often irascible, full-fledged West Virginia hillbilly with more fire in his Buddha-like belly than most people could stomach. He also wasn’t averse to bitching; and what he bitched about most was all the people who asked for his advice and then never bothered to take it.

One day, in a fit of youthful exuberance, I swore I would do whatever he instructed no questions asked. For a few tense moments he just looked at me silently scanning my soul. Then cocking an eyebrow he slowly said, “You’ll do anything?”

“Yes,” I said, though not as emphatically as I’d intended.

Anything?” He quietly repeated.

I barely mustered a feeble nod.

“Good,” he said as he walked away, “go learn how to think for yourself.”

*     *     *

Like any good Zen puzzle or “koan,” this two minute dialogue inspired forty years of back breaking work. I also love its “mousetrap” nature: the salient feature of every koan. If I’d asked how to learn to think for myself he would just have said, “I’d love to tell you, but then you wouldn’t be thinking for yourself.”

Great leaders think for themselves. While Steve Jobs is only the most obvious example, epitomized by Apple’s “Think Different” tag line, all great leaders know that their biggest obstacle is conventional thinking, fads, “group think,” and a herd mentality.

A few years ago “big box” retailers were all the rage as they smugly “rolled up” the universe at the expense of poor Mom and Pop. Now Circuit City and Blockbuster are bankrupt and the Internet has Best Buy gasping for breath. A few brave souls made billions in the recent financial meltdown by resisting the pull of the crowd. They dared to be wrong just long enough to be right despite ridicule and even ostracism at the hands of their peers and the “experts.”

But thinking for yourself is also not as simple as stubbornly rejecting every idea just because it wasn’t invented here. Besides, most of the nonconformists I’ve met were just conforming to some socially acceptable form of nonconformity. On Wall Street they say, “Never fight the tape!” which is just another way of saying that there are times when even the most principled person must clamber onto the train or get off the tracks.

The rewards are priceless, but a stiff price must be paid intellectually, psychologically, and morally for the privilege of thinking for yourself.

The Intellectual

Read everything you can, read critically, and remember that a book is never really read until you explain it to someone else. Surround yourself with people that continually challenge your ideas. Find a kick ass mentor who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Avoid chit-chat like the plague: Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds talk about ideas, average minds about events, and small minds about other people.” The mindless just parrot their favorite lines from movies.

While the conventional wisdom of our culture considers arguing the height of bad taste, independent thinkers like Plato and Thomas Aquinas argued incessantly without getting personal. I’m so addicted to arguing that if I can’t find a foeman worthy of my steel, I just argue with myself- often without even realizing it.

Finally, the best way to learn is to teach. Teaching forces you to articulate your ideas in a clear, concise manner and naturally invites questions and criticism. There are thousands of venues starving for volunteer teachers, and you will get far more in return than you can possibly give.


The Psychological

But training the intellect is actually the easiest part of learning to think for yourself. The philosopher Nietzsche said that freedom of thought relies on a psychological step: “The hour of one’s own great self-contempt.” Independent thinkers like Socrates find their own ignorance and herd-like tendencies psychologically intolerable. For them, the real possibility that their most cherished beliefs might be merely the brain washing effect of their genes, upbringing, peer pressure, and societal influences is suffocatingly insufferable.

[caption id="attachment_4910" align="alignright" width="300" caption=""Never get out of the boat" -Apocalypse Now"][/caption]

The cultural air we breathe is so infectious that two of the most brilliant people I know spent months picking out the “perfect” name for their first born only to find, much to their chagrin, that their efforts had merely produced the most commonly chosen name for that year. People like Jobs, Socrates, and Nietzsche don't choose to get out of the boat. They are driven out of the boat by a psychological abhorrence for this kind of mental slavery.

Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, and without it our purely intellectual efforts degenerate into little more than the mental masturbation of the armchair general.

The Moral

But the heaviest price that free thinkers must pay is moral. Thinking for yourself has lifestyle implications that disrupt “normality.” These abnormal, even traumatic, disruptions are not the regrettable collateral damage of the process: They destroy complacency and provide the essential resistance that builds the muscles of independence.

A hermit has his cave, a monk his monastery, a writer his garret, an artist his studio, and a scientist his lab. A fund manager I know shuts himself up in a windowless office so that even something as innocuous as the weather will not inadvertently influence his mood and therefore his trading decisions. These are the lonely places where deep thinkers go to be free of the virulent and highly contagious influences of the madding crowd.

[caption id="attachment_4911" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Taktshang Tiger's Nest Monastery"][/caption]

Being a great leader is actually much harder than being a monk, writer, artist, scientist or fund manager because a leader must maintain his lofty independence while simultaneously joined at the hip with customers, employees, vendors, stockholders and society in general. The ancient mystics called this trick “being in the world but not of the world,” and pulling it off can lead to feelings of alienation, isolation, and loneliness that are only exacerbated by being constantly surrounded by people. Uneasy lies the head that wears the leadership crown.

The lonely lot of leadership also means keeping secrets; often the very secrets that if revealed would produce the understanding on the part of others for our motives, actions, and decisions that all human beings so desperately crave.

When I was CEO of my own company one day my partner waltzed into my office and closed the door.

“I know you got women trouble but nobody else does. They think you know something about the company they don’t. If you don’t slap a smile on your face in a hurry the resumes are going to hit the street.”

I didn’t know whether to scream or weep. Apparently 14 hour days for the last four years for a starvation salary was not enough. I had to throw the meager remains of my pathetic personal life on the fire as well (my commitment to our company was why I was having “women trouble” in the first damn place). All for people who seemed to think  I “had it made.”

Worst of all I had to admit that my partner was right. This was the adventure I’d signed on for. Blaming others and feeling sorry for myself was a form of selfish self-indulgence that our wonderful people did not deserve and that our company could ill afford. I plastered a smile on my face and went back to work like someone who in fact did "have it made."

It’s one thing to ask your loving wife for her wedding ring so you can pawn it to make payroll. It is quite another to keep it a secret from the very people who might appreciate her sacrifice and empathize with your anguish. Nothing could prepare me for looking into the happy, trusting faces of friends and colleagues about to be laid off without being able to tell them. Let alone their feelings of angry betrayal when they learned the truth.

There is something counter-cultural about learning to think for yourself that inevitably turns you into a stranger in a strange land. Your heroic quest drives you out into that metaphorical desert of myth and legend. There, far from normality and the comfort of your fellows, you are attacked by the demons of self-doubt, loneliness, misunderstanding, self-pity, controversy and at times even despair.

You are driven off the beaten path and onto the road less traveled until, like a blood-spattered soldier returning from war,  you discover that you have little in common with most people or even with those you love.


I was recently asked whether I thought Steve Jobs or Bill Gates was the better leader. I admire Gates and Microsoft made my company successful, but I instantly sided with Jobs. Not because he created great products or left Apple arguably the best company in the world, but because he was banished in disgrace from the company he founded. Jobs knew what it meant to be scorned as a thinker who had “lost his touch” and “outlived his usefulness.” But despite the dark night of the soul that shadowed him out of Apple, he refused to take his riches and run for the center of the bell shaped curve. Instead he never stopped believing in himself and his destiny, and fought his way back inch by gut wrenching inch.
Morpheus' Challenge
It was Steve Jobs who accepted the challenge that Morpheus presents to Neo, and by extension all of us, in the movie The Matrix. Rather than cowering in the comfort of the Matrix, Jobs was determined to “find out just how deep this rabbit hole goes” no matter what Minotaur was waiting for him at the other end of life’s labyrinth.

Of course this discussion raises an important question: Is thinking for yourself worth it? If you long for life's greatest adventure; those thrills of victory and agonies of defeat that plumb the very depths of your soul then yes, it is worth every penny and infinitely more. If you resonate with those heaven storming types who prefer growth over security, questions over answers, truth over happiness, wisdom over contentment, and making a difference over social acceptance then it's the only game in town.

As a spiritual or if you prefer superstitious man, I also don’t believe people like Jobs, Nietzsche, and Socrates choose the road less traveled along with the inevitable travails that cost Jobs his birth right, Nietzsche his sanity, and Socrates his life. Like Moses at the hands of an insistent burning bush, getting out of the boat is a vocation that chooses you.

But regardless, like Captain Willard says never get out of the boat. Never get out of the boat unless, like Steve Jobs, you are ready if called upon, to take it all the way…

Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook, or check out my Forbes blog for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.