LESSONS FROM PROHIBITION

December 13, 2021

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I noticed in the news last week, that it was the 100 year anniversary of prohibition. This giant policy blunder got me thinking again about the idea of unintended consequences.

As a business leader, I make dozens of decisions every day. Whether it’s related to making an investment, team leadership, or building relationships, all those decisions have real consequences. Many decisions carry risks, and part of my job is to mitigate decisions with high risk.

Faced with the hard choices of leadership, there’s rarely a single right answer — context and the specifics of each case matter. To avoid unforced errors, we have to think about how other people will see things and respond.

For example, what happens when a team member goes on autopilot — performing OK, but not showing the kind of energy and focus that sustains a culture of excellence? Allowing a mediocre performer to continue in place, and I risk undermining our whole team culture. On the other hand, addressing too forcefully, and that threatens morale.

Or consider the reverse. What should I do with a rockstar performer whose talent I want to cultivate? Without enough attention, the star performer might fall short of his potential, or even decide to leave. But giving too much mentorship to one high performer could create a sense of favoritism that hurts team morale.

We can reduce risks and mitigate the worst outcomes with a mix of careful consideration of options, empathy for other people’s perspectives, and preparation. People don’t just respond to your intentions. They have their own ideas, and we’d better be thinking about how others will react.

It’s amazing how often mistakes look obvious in hindsight. Prohibition was a predictable failure because when lawmakers banned alcohol, they just assumed that making something illegal was enough to get rid of it. They forgot that people want what they want, and driving the alcohol industry underground would just empower black marketeers.

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