My parents are mathematicians, and taught me as a child to learn all the formulas, run all the numbers, and find the right answer. That was my mindset through high school, where I was captain of the math team. Then freshman year of college I studied psychology under a brilliant professor who opened up a whole new world for me — one where there is no single right answer, and where people’s perceptions rather than some absolute truth are, as a practical matter, paramount.
The challenge and joy of being a business leader is the merger of these dual perspectives: Unless you’re skilled at both you’re in trouble, or at best your success will be relatively short-lived.
As CEO you need to excite customers, instill passion and ambition in your team, and sensitively resolve conflicts — endeavors at which you can’t succeed without skillfully probing the needs, dreams and anxieties of others; in other words, without being an excellent psychologist.
Yet everywhere in business there are disciplines where more deterministic rules of the road must be learned: In finance and strategy, technology and operations, and even sales and marketing. These laws are not quite as clear-cut as those of math – there are wider ranges of acceptable answers, allowing for more creativity – but if you fail to learn and live by them you do so at your company’s peril.
Business is roughly equal parts art and science, and great leaders master both. If you choose to focus on one and downplay the other you’ll succeed only up to a point, and not for as long as you’d like.