Successful leaders seek to do what has not been done to create the future, while others seek the repetition of what has been done to preserve the past.
It was the comedian and insightful urban philosopher George Carlin who coined the concept of “Vuja de” to identify the uneasy feeling one has when they are in a place they have never been before. The “Vuja de” idea expressed by Carlin also serves as a solid basis for identifying the sometimes lonely feeling of being out front and ahead of the crowd in the world of business. For some, (far too many) the feeling of “Vuja de” is intimidating, while for others (far too few) it is exhilarating.
We are all familiar with the term “Déjà vu” which literally means “already seen.” While many business and political leaders seem most comfortable repeating “what has already been seen,” when Déjà vu is experienced on an individual level it creates a strange feeling that can be disconcerting, mind-numbing and depressing. The most familiar example of the concept of Déjà vu was explored in the classic 1993 comedy Ground Hog Day starring Bill Murray. In the movie Murray is forced to repeat the same day over and over again in a way that so frustrates him, he is almost driven to suicide. Unfortunately this is a frustration felt all too often by the many trapped in the today’s corporate world of Déjà vu.
A Business Principle on Crutches
The official motto of those who seek the consistency and security of Déjà vu in the business world is, “We’ve always done it this way!” Any effort to seek innovation or a better way to do things is suppressed by weak leaders who fear the uncertainty of Vuja de.
This desire for Déjà vu in business is not the exception, it is, unfortunately, the rule. This concept of seeing what has already been seen and doing what has already been done is at the core of how business leaders are trained, conditioned and motivated to perform. It starts in business schools, is reinforced in corporate organizations and validated by pricey business consultants. This triad of consistency and conformity acts as the perfect storm to implant the comfort of business Déjà vu and ward off the uncertainty and insecurity of Vuja de.
First off, top business schools – Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton – along with a horde of others, are all held up by the establishment as a ticket to future success in business. Indeed, these institutions do offer an excellent (if very expensive) primary education in the fundamentals of business. It is important and worthwhile to understand organization, structure, process and finance, but there is more to real leadership and ultimate success than learning the process and procedure of what has already been done.
These business schools do an exceptional job teaching and developing future corporate managers so long as success is defined as learning to do well what has been done in the past. This is a type of Déjà vu education. But there is another, more important, definition of success. It is a success that can be defined as building on what has been done in the past to do in the future what has not been done in the past. This is a type of Vuja de success. Unfortunately the accepted tactic of business schools is to teach future managers how to function in a Déjà vu world and little effort or attention is given to teaching the next generation of business leaders how to thrive in a Vuja de world, where the real future and success awaits.
Second, since most of those managing and leading in the corporate world are products of the traditional business school education, much of the current business culture is one of “this is the way we have always done it,” “going along to get along,” and the implementation of process and procedure to maintain the status quo. This creates the perfect fertile environment for the Déjà vu mentality of leadership.
The third leg of this Déjà vu mentality of management is the willing complicity – driven by high fees – of the ubiquitous army of conniving business consultants who seem to exist only to validate the propriety of the Déjà vu world of business management taught by business schools and practiced by most corporate doyennes. Using such grandiose and pompous concepts as “granular analysis,” “cascading theories of performance,” “best practices” and the ever-present standby “peer group analysis,” these business consultants are nothing more than the sycophants and toadies for the propagation of the Déjà vu management philosophy. And, those are their good points.
The American business model has done well in the past, but unfortunately the past is not the future. The world is changing even faster than Mitt Romney changes his positions on issues and in today’s world a successful leader needs to make history, not repeat history or they will be history.
The way to be in a position to make history is to seek to live in a Vuja de world. This can prove to be challenging, because it is always easier to copy the past, than it is to create the future. For some, stepping out of one’s comfort zone engenders the uneasy feeling of uncertainty and the loneliness of being out front of the herd, but that is where the opportunity of the future lives. And the future will belong to those who get there first.
Looking Ahead to Stay Ahead
The way to create and live comfortably in a Vuja de world is to constantly reminisce about the future. To reminisce about the future is to visualize the way you want the future to be, in the same way those in the Déjà vu world reminisce about the past. Reminiscing about the future will not enable a leader to predict the future, but it will focus their attention on the future and give them the opportunity to make the future. Living in a Vuja de world does not assure success – nothing can do that – but it does offer a distinct advantage over those reminiscing about the past in a Déjà vu world, because for them the future is always an unknown and intimidating surprise.
And the Moral of the Story …
The accepted model for most corporate leaders – how they are trained, conditioned and rewarded – is to live in a Déjà vu world. It is a comfortable world for many because the “best practices” have been identified, the performance of peers can be measured and the path of past success has been marked. There is, seemingly, a safety and security in learning and doing well what has been done well in the past. Unfortunately, while that notion appears to be true, it is not. The future is not about the past.
But there is another world. It is the world of Vuja de. It is a world of uncertainty that is only matched by the opportunity and success that comes with reminiscing about the future to do what has not been done in order to create the future. The Vuja de world calls for the courage to look past the past and to accept the ambiguity of doing what others fear to do in an effort to achieve success by getting to the future first.
There is a rewarding irony that comes with living in a Vuja de world. When those with a Vuja de mentality of leadership reminisce about the future, rather than the past, in order to create the future, it means that when the future does arrive, it is Déjà vu for them, because they have already been there.