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Syd Weighs In

A thanks to those in a thankless job: Management

About the author

Sydney is a professor of strategy and leadership, and Dean for Executive Education,  at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and the author of 16 books, including Why Smart Executives Fail. Follow him on twitter: @sydfinkelstein

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegal, Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. (Getty)

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegal, Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. (Getty)

In many countries around the world, economies are still struggling to stimulate growth and drive themselves out of recession. And business leaders are failing to come up with solutions. The rollout of Obamacare in the United States by its namesake has become a case study in incompetence. Other political leaders from President Francois Hollande in France to Canada’s tabloid sensation, mayor of Toronto Rob Ford have regularly demonstrated a paucity of talent at the top.

Is this our future? Are we destined to be mired in a slump of leadership forever?

It’s easy to read all the headlines and believe — mistakenly — we are living in an era devoid of great leaders. But that is simply not true. At all levels of society we see greatness in leadership, people trying to change the world, entrepreneurs building businesses of value and chief executives of the highest integrity rebuilding economies.

The US holiday of Thanksgiving is upon us, so maybe it’s time to give thanks to some of the interesting people who refuse to accept failure and strive — warts and all — to make something happen.

So thank you, Evan Spiegel, chief executive officer and co-founder of Snapchat, a company that created a smartphone app that shares photos and instant messages that disappear a few seconds after they are viewed. The gratitude isn’t for creating an app that few people over 25-years-old understand, but for having the courage to try to build your own business in the face of enormous temptation. Whether this turns out to be a Marc Zuckerberg-like success story at Facebook, whose decision to remain independent may be what Spiegel is trying to emulate, or a less successful Andrew Mason-like story at Groupon, who turned down a $6 billion dollar buyout offer from Google only to be pushed out as CEO three years later, remains to be seen.

Thanks should also go to Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.com, for revolutionising multiple industries simultaneously. He has fundamentally changed how people buy and read books. He also changed how retail stores operate, forcing them to lower their prices while simultaneously adding overnight delivery and store pick-up options for customers. When the history books are being written about this era of business, only Apple co-founder Steve Jobs will get more ink than Bezos, maybe.

With digital technologies not only disrupting industries like books and music, but also taxicabs (Uber), travel (Google Maps; Kayak), and even university education (edX; Coursera), the best CEOs recognise that you can’t sit back and see what happens when the world changes.

Take CEO Ajay Banga at MasterCard. Rather than watch as PayPal and Square, among others, create digital credit cards that might displace the ubiquitous plastic in our wallets, MasterCard has been testing a series of products and apps designed to simplify how consumers buy things online, at sporting events and even in parts of the world where safe and reliable non-cash transactions are virtually non-existent. Who knows which, if any, of their many experiments will become the killer app, but if you’re not in the game you don’t have a chance. Ajay Banga, thank you for showing us how giant companies can still innovate in the face of uncertain change.

It takes courage to experiment in larger companies, knowing that many, if not most, of the shots you take will go wide of the net. Ironically, the stigma of failure is greatest at the businesses that can most afford a few misses. Yet, the greatest examples of recasting business models — popularly known as “the pivot” — occur in the small entrepreneurial startups that live with the narrowest margins for error.

For providing the best examples of leadership in the face of uncertainty, for providing real-time case studies on the power of adaptability, and for bringing a radical freshness to economies lucky enough to nurture rule-busting entrepreneurs, I say thank you to Daniel Ek of Spotify for moving from a music sharing product toward becoming the operating system for music; to Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey for allowing their startup, Twitter, to morph from a tool for status updates to the information network it is today; and to Pony Ma of Chinese internet giant, Tencent, for being that rare example of a market leader willing to completely upend its strategy by shifting from desktop dominance to mobile platforms.

That each of these leaders is being richly, often enormously, rewarded for their success does not take away from their accomplishments. It is also important to note that most jobs are created by entrepreneurial companies, making these companies the superstars of economic growth. For me, it is enough that they have created something that never existed before and that those creations bring value — enjoyment, convenience and sometimes even new business opportunities — to many other people.

Excellence in leadership is not limited to business builders. Individuals can make a difference at their local schools and religious institutions by volunteering their time, energy, and money. It’s easy to start feeling better when you start tallying up leaders this way, because there are many people who need to be counted, and thanked.

To those graduating with highly marketable skillsets from universities around the world, thank you for taking on giant, almost intractable, problems. Thank you, also, to the many undergraduate and Master of Business Administration students who are taking jobs in the education sector, driven by a desire to make a difference in an “industry” that can’t seem to get things right.

In the face of economic headwinds around the world it’s easy to forget how many talented people have stepped forward to take on leadership challenges in all sorts of organizations. While stories about the Rob Fords of the world make headlines, every now and then it may be worth remembering that the vast majority of leaders – in business, government and non-profit sectors alike — are creating value for multiple constituencies. An occasional “thank you” is not unreasonable.

If you’re not in the game you don’t have a chance.