All the same indifference

The Life: Perhaps being unique is not what business leaders should strive to become. Leadership expert Tommy Weir explores how being unique can inhibit success.

A week spent in egypt gave Tommy Weir an epiphany. Shawn Baldwin / Bloomberg
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I recently spent a week interviewing business leaders throughout Egypt, where I had an epiphany: being unique can be an inhibitor to success.

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You may be wondering where did this insight come from given my view on how important it is to be different from the pack.

But it seemed that in every interview the leaders tried to distinguish their companies or situations from whatever reference point was being used.

References to the Middle East were met with phrases such as, "Oh, but we are unique; we are Egypt."

Reference to a specific industry insight, again, was met with the insistence that the company was unique compared to everyone else.

Even when meeting with Kraft, one of our partners who worked at Procter & Gamble (P&G) for 14 years commented to the Kraft leader that something felt similar to P&G. But, again, the leader of Kraft insisted the company was very different.

I doubt whether you could find two companies that - on the surface, at least - are more alike.

Both have strong US cultures, focus on the food manufacturing and consumer goods sector and are more than a century old.

They also boast about the same global workforce of approximately 127,000.

Yet, the leaders cling to subtle and often insignificant differences.

This made me realise that kind of thinking is not limited to leaders in Egypt. It seems true for nearly every leader I have interviewed, regardless of nationality, geography or industry.

It made me wonder, then, why the fascination with being unique? Perhaps leaders want to feel special, to somehow be significant or have the view that this makes them memorable.

On the one hand I argue that championsare unique and should not try to be like the others.

But a problem arises when the fixation with being unique leads to inaction rather than becoming a part of your success story.

In the interviews it came across as if the leaders were using their uniqueness factor as an excuse and, as a result, this became a limiting factor. It almost seems to imply that no one understands their situation and there is little that can be done to improve.

This robs them of an opportunity to gain an advantage.

By recognising similarities, leaders can move faster by copying each others' success - rather than sit in paralysis while hoping for a magical solution, or even moving at a snail's pace trying to create a solution that matches your nuanced uniqueness.

So what should leaders do?

Stop arguing about why they are so unique and look to others to learn.

P&G leaders have mastered this: rather than fixating on generating a solution from scratch, they invest their time in perfecting others ideas.

It is rumoured that the company even has a "Best Steal Award" where they reward their employees for taking market ideas from others and making them even better.

What was most troubling to me during the interviews was listening to leaders argue why something would not work, rather than taking action to find out what would.

Champions who are rightfully unique find ways to continually improve and take constant action.

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, author of The CEO Shift and the managing director of the Emerging Market Leadership Center

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