By Irving H. Buchen, PhD

It is probably politically incorrect to endorse obsession. But CEOs and boards favor organizations that are vision driven, future driven and leader driven; and driven is not exactly non-obsessive. Perhaps the wisest course is to find a model that at least somewhat redeems or softens the edge of being driven and yet maintains its ruthlessly singular and intense focus. One recommendation is to apply a phrase often repeated, invoked, and urged: become a student of the business (SOB).

SOB often unambiguously describes a manager who compulsively lives, eats, and breathes the business and in the process may have developed uncanny instincts for what is central and futuristic. Warren Bennis relates a confession of Ben Rick of Lockheed: “I always know a good idea when I hear it, because of the feeling of terror that seizes me.” Rick was describing two students of the business: the one who always searches for that piercing idea and the other who has found it.

What are the characteristics and qualities of a student of the business? What distinguishes that special state from the conventional knowledge worker? And how do such followers affect leaders? SOBs evidence at least five obsessive qualities: instinct, self-learning, convictions, endless inquiry, and problem-solving.

The SOB has an ear and a smell for what is genuinely new, even groundbreaking. Students of the business develop instincts, hunches, and feelings; they have highly developed antennae. But such reliance on intuition is not merely an early warning and opportunity system–although it can significantly function that way–above all, it is a way of knowing.

They can ferret out something about to disturb the universe. Like Rick, they do not have to be the one doing it. Their obsession is initially to recognize it, then to give it credence, and finally perhaps to lure it into this world. Like collectors of anything–pens, spittoons, stamps, coins–students of the business are always looking for the rare gem–for the Holy Grail.

Formal education often has little to do with the process. In fact, it can be an obstacle. SOBs develop their own favorite way of seeking and acquiring knowledge–their own curriculum. But the respect for insight is total and pivotal. Unexpected “eurekas” can set the SOB off on a life journey.

The problem is that although the above experiences may happen to many, it comes to naught mostly because of many fears–of being perceived as uncompromising, the intimidation of conventional company culture, and the paralysis of taking risks. Many are more comfortable on the sidelines, cheering the obsessives on to oblivion. Indeed, such intense SOBs are often condescendingly advised that if they want to get ahead and be accepted that they ought to toe the mark.
That conventional “wisdom” is pushed again and again at every stage until most buckle and begin to love their captors and slavery. But convictions dictate otherwise and preserve persistence and singular integrity. After a while genuine SOBs realize that their strengths and differences are part and parcel of their identity—those strengths and differences are who the SOBs are. William Blake over 200 years ago proclaimed: “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another’s.”

Endless Inquiry
Such types also are endless probers. They never stop asking questions. They are reminiscent of Louis B. Mayer’s classic statement: “For your information, let me ask you a question.” They are relentless. They get the scent and they are off like Sherlock Holmes pursuing the mystery until it gives up the ghost. They are often boring and even pedantic. They always start conversations with “Did you know…?”

They are capable of ruining dinner parties or being brushed off and told to get a life. But nothing stops or slows them down. They shake those comments off and look for another victim. Although they may be tiresome to others, they are never bored with themselves. They cover the waterfront and never miss very much if anything. Pedantry aside, they frequently find shortcuts to the basics or circuitous approaches to the center. Students of the business are searching for the impossible, which they secretly hope they will never find because it is the search not the end prize that stirs them.

Problem Solving
SOBs are inveterate problem solvers, admirers of those who pull rabbits out of hats, and tireless seekers of the state of the art. One could not find a better champion of innovation and creativity. What SOBs find particularly creative are new theories and metaphors that force reformulation, that require the entire world to be viewed differently. Such insights approach revelation. SOBs operate on the assumption that nothing is known forever and that knowledge will be overturned regularly and without warning. Finally, they are major advocates for the future, which they believe will be incredible and beyond present imagination. Ultimately, all students of the business seek to approach the threshold of time, to know all that can be known up to that point, and then to gaze and search for the new, the dazzling, and what has not yet been thought of. They all read science fiction.

In short, what does this obsessive managerial model of the student of the business offer managers and leaders and confer on their organizations? At least five benefits.

  1. It urges managers and leaders to think back to a time and place and person that compelled them to be obsessive–when they underwent an all-nighter not because they were cramming but rather totally possessed; when they did not so much decide to write something but rather it selected them to write it; when they were possessed by an idea or a vision that they could not let go of and that gave them no peace; and, finally, when they thought of going into business for themselves or actually created such a business, because all obsessives are entrepreneurial. Such experiences minimally will establish a basis for identification and kinship and enable managers to contemplate as a real future a mode of operation that is not totally unfamiliar or unattractive.
  2. The model of the student of the business can be used to assess and examine the degree of complacency and comfort of managers. How much is routine, how much is accepted as absolute gospel that will never change, how much inertia is built into the company culture? Is the organization driven to possess a future unique and discontinuous from everyone else in the industry? In short, is the organizational culture itself a student of the business?
  3. It compels probing and dislocating questions to be asked–at meetings, in teams, in formulating policy and planning. Are challenging questions and analysis generally rated highly and viewed favorably? Is the culture a questioning or pacifying culture, risking little, playing it safe, always being predictable?
  4. Does the organization settle too quickly for answers or solutions? Is everything solved with the same solution tool kit? When was the last time that anyone pushed the question or issue harder, beyond conventional wisdom and familiar thresholds? Is the environment placid or passionate? Are there any resident madmen, idea lunatics, obsessive searchers?
  5. Has everyone been reading the same business books? Are they ever discussed? Put on the agenda for a meeting? They all cannot be right, can they? Where’s the synthesis? Who are the company’s innovators? Are they recognized and rewarded? How is creativity and futurity tied together? How many students of the business does the organization have? Imagine a CEO who could boast: “My managers generally are all obsessives. They are all SOBs.”

Bennis, Warren. (2009). Learning to Lead. New York, NY: Basic Books , p.293.
Irvjng H. Buchen, PhD, secured his doctorate from Johns Hopkins; taught at Cal State, Wisconsin, and Penn State; served as a consultant and executive coach; and published over 150 articles and 10 books.