Chemistry Board

A controversial line from the Irish playwright and co-founder of LSE, and one easily misunderstood. Dominic Lawson recently used Shaw’s words, in the Independent, to explain the minds of infamous business leaders like ex CEO of RBS Sir Fred Goodwin. There is a strong belief that to be a successful leader one must acquire a ruthless streak, or rather a high degree of ‘unreasonableness’, yet we are not always sure exactly what that means.

The argument critically hinges on the definition of the word unreasonable, for which there are three possible interpretations. Firstly, and perhaps most commonly, unreasonable can mean “acting outside of sound judgement”, often leading to “inappropriate” behaviour. This is certainly the understanding that seems to fit stories of business leaders threatening to fire half of the company due to a pink wafer being served with their morning cup of tea. There is also another word for this, unbearable.

Another possible explanation for the term could be “excessive conduct”. We may consider this as being a fair portrayal of the unreasonable behaviour of sections of the banking industry, who admittedly hope for a further global depression in order to satisfy their opportunistic desires and sew in failure yet reap in big bonuses. There is again another word for this, unscrupulous.

However if Shaw was intending unreasonable to represent a third interpretation, reflecting an attitude that “acts not in accordance with practical realities”, then his statement in my opinion would be delightfully insightful. I cannot see how being overly aggressive or destructive for the sake of it can help shape an organisation that is worth building. Yet to possess the foresight, strength and courage to go against convention to create something that barely seems possible, is exactly how real progress is made. It is absolutely necessary for a leader to be unreasonable in transforming complex notions to their simplest roots, to not accept limitations, to raise the standard and push innovation. Whether it is in business spheres, arts or technology it is essential to be unreasonable in the pursuit of excellence.

Some leaders confuse the former for the latter and behave like want-to-be rock stars. It might be that for some leaders intolerable behaviour is a byproduct of their driven genius, in the same way that a light bulb primarily emits light, but releases heat as a byproduct. Nevertheless, it is the light that is wanted, not the heat.

Unnecessary, unwarranted and unwanted actions do not enable progress and can even hinder it. Rather the committed, relentless and focused attitudes of individuals who are not prepared to settle for an inferior standard to what they expect, is the real secret to progress. To some, this may sound unreasonable.