Years ago, I attended a large conference filled with established and aspirational entrepreneurs. To my left at the opening session sat a guy who sold towels to the NBA that reduced the spread of staph infection. His secret? The towels had the player’s names on them. To my right sat a guy who was working on harvesting rare earth minerals from asteroids. Steve Wynn took the stage and opened his talk with this: “I know you … because I am one of you … and you are all crazy in the head.”
For years since, I have noted how effective leaders and innovators often seem a little off. Sometimes they run towards what they should fear. Sometimes they blaze trails while burning all the bridges. Sometimes they defy reason and decorum with their actions or their words. Steve Jobs. Donald Trump. Elon Musk. Howard Hughes. John McAfee. Thomas Edison. Steve Wynn. Even those that appear sane carry a little crazy. Bill Clinton. Larry Ellison. Walt Disney.
A quick title search on Amazon reveals more than 60,000 book titles that contain the word leadership. How many have you read? Peering over at my own bookshelf I must have 30 different leadership playbooks with 30 different directives — often in conflict. Be humble. Be bold. Lead from the front. Lead from behind. Focus on the small things. Focus on the big things. Do it my way. Do it your way. Apparently being an expert in leadership theory only requires a pen. Of the 60,000-plus titles on Amazon I found only one with the word crazy in it, Joe Phillips’ unheard of classic You’re Crazy! How the Hell Are We Going to Do That?! I have not read this, but I will. It has 29 reviews and they are all 5 stars. Maybe we are on to something with all this crazy talk. Given that this seems to be an unexplored dimension of leadership let’s work to define it.
In my mind crazy leaders think less and do more. Rather than listening to and caring about every “why we can’t,” crazy leaders just act. They start airlines to deliver spare parts, they make impossible runs for president, they build their own private spacecrafts. To the sane, these are all insane pursuits. Crazy leaders seem immune to criticism and unfazed by failure. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Albert Einstein failed the entrance exam to Zurich Polytechnic. Crazy leaders have ADHD.
According to a study from Johan Wiklund at Syracuse, the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder — hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and impulsiveness — are actually behaviors that enhance the chances of success for an entrepreneur. How many great leaders do you know who love attending long meetings or reading voluminous legal documents? Crazy leaders don’t have time for that. Richard Branson has ADHD. So does Charles Schwab. In fact, individuals with ADHD are 300 percent more likely to start their own businesses. Want a more dynamic organization? Find someone crazy to lead it. Want to be a better leader? Go crazy.
I moved back to Memphis in 2000. At the time, serial entrepreneur Dean Jernigan was building a ridiculous ballpark, a luxury office building, and an upscale private dining club in an otherwise bombed-out area of downtown. The financial failings of this endeavor have been widely reported. Dean moved on to other projects. But you know what? The ballpark stands. That crazy idea played a vital role in reviving downtown then and its momentum now. On March 9th the professional Memphis 901 FC will kick off its inaugural season on that field with cranes whirling on its corners building new hotels and adjunct amenities. At the end of 2018, a crazy ag start-up named Indigo announced that 700 high-paying jobs will fill the office tower. Memphis thanks you, Dean, for your insanity. Memphis needs more of that. Want to be a better city? Go crazy!
David S. Waddell is CEO of Waddell and Associates. He has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, and other local, national, and global resources. Visit waddellandassociates.com for more.