I walked into the conference room with my PR manager Jody.  Mike awaited us to review our launch plan. About 15 minutes into the conversation, Mike interrupted us and said, “Damnit, I pay you to be a firestarter, not a fireman, come back with a plan to start some fires!” So chastened,  Jody and I walked out of the office with our proverbial tails between our legs.  

This was a memorable, though certainly not unique interaction, with the late Mike Homer.  Mike, who died tragically young of a rare brain disease at age 50 in 2009, was the a key driving force behind the commercial success of Netscape from prior to it’s IPO in 1995 to after its sale to AOL in 1999. Eighteen years later, I still remember Mike as one of the leaders who taught me the most and led the best.

I was reminded of Mike when I read the new bestseller by Sam Walker, The Captain Class.  In the book Walker first uses sophisticated analytics to identify the 16 stand-out sports teams of all time, teams as well known as the Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-80), the Boston Celtics (1956-69), and the Brazilian National Mens Soccer Club (1958-62) and as obscure as the Collinwood Magpies (1927-30) of Australian Rules Football fame.  He then asked the seemingly impossible question to answer, “what made them great?”. His surprising answer, the presence of a certain type of team captain.  One that shared 8 characteristics that he identified.

Among the eight, four stuck out to me when I think of Mike.  First, they weren’t the usual suspects, i.e. the superstar. Mike was not the Marc Andreessen of Netscape any more than Helderaldo Bellini was the Pele’ of the great Brazilian soccer teams.  Second, they were not Angels. Mike, like many of the captains outlined in the book, lead a hardscrabble childhood.  Growing up in working class San Francisco, the son of a bar owner, Mike was a product of not the Ivy league or Stanford, but of UC Cal. Mike rose meteorically based on his skill and street savvy. Third, they broke rules. Mike was a street fighter. If there was a rule book to marketing, Mike knew it, and knew instinctively when to throw it out and break it.   And last, they did potentially divisive things. Some of Mike’s conflicts were legendary, I’ll leave it at that, but in hindsight, they served the purpose of actually rallying the company to action or necessary change. When Mike saw the what needed to be done, he willed it to happen. Mike may be gone, but for those of us on the Netscape team, he’s the captain that won’t be forgotten.

The second book that I just finished is Michael Lewis’s “The Undoing Project“. The book is a profile of the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israeli psychologist who, as Lewis puts it, formed a “Friendship that Changed Our Minds”. This is a challenging book for engineering types like myself who have transitioned into business careers.

We, myself included, think the world is rational, we are all in our minds, economists who believe that humans make decisions rationally. This, Kahneman and Tversky show us is NOT true. Over the course of decades, they showed that decisions and choices are impacted by our emotions according to things like recency, anchoring and relevance. Their work explains things like why people regularly turn down good gambles, make seemingly obvious mistakes in decisions over and over again and let bias impact their judgement. And this simple description does little justice to either Lewis’s book OR their work.

One concept that stuck out for me is framing, which says that “simply changing the description of a situation and making a gain seem like a loss, you can cause people to completely flip their attitude toward risk (pg 276) ” The classic Asian Disease Problem showed that Doctors would make the opposite decision on numerically identical choices when framed as potential success (# of lives saved) vs. potential failure (# of deaths). Astonishing.

I’ve long believed that in highly competitive markets, CONTEXT is a powerful motivator and critical part of messaging.  It is the way we stand out from the crowd, by connecting to and FRAMING the way the market thinks about problems and solutions. But I left this reading thinking it may be nearly the ONLY think that matters when trying to differentiate our solution from competitive ones.  Mind boggling!

Having had our context REFRAMED by Mike,  Jody and I left and after licking our wounds, we came up with new FIRESTARTING plan, broke a few rules, and came back with a new and more powerful course of action! 

Leadership it seems, is all about breaking rules and re-framing context! So now let’s go undo something together!

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